Our culture of impunity

Sam Smith, 1998 – Underneath the sturm und drang of political debate, official Washington — from lobbyist to media to politician — has reached a remarkable consensus that it no longer has to play by any rules but its own.

There is a phrase for this in some Latin American countries. They call it the culture of impunity. In such places it has led to death squads, routine false imprisonment and baroque corruption. We are not quite there yet but we are certainly moving in the same direction and for some of the same causes…

In a culture of impunity the rules serve the internal logic of the system rather than whatever values ostensibly guide a county, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition. The culture of impunity encourages coups and cruelty, at best practices only titular democracy, and puts itself at the service of what Hong Kong with Orwellian understatement refers to as “functional constituencies,” which is to say major corporations.

Such a culture does not announce itself. It creeps up day by day, deal by deal, euphemism by euphemism. In recent months we have seen it at work.

And in a culture of impunity, what replaces the Constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all sort of arcane stuff? Simply greed. As Michael Douglas put it in one of his movies: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.”

Of course, there has always been an overabundance of greed in Washington. What is different today is the stunning lack of restraint on the avarice. The federal city has become a town without heroes, without conflict over right and wrong, with little but an endless struggle by narcissistic boomer bandits to get more money, more power, and more press than the next guy. In the chase, anything goes and the only standard is whether you win or lose.

The federal government no longer effectively regulates corporate greed. Republicans no longer combat Democratic greed and vice versa. Liberals and centrist Republicans have become pathetically ineffective forces within their own parties. The local bar largely devotes itself to undermining decent government. The media has lost both its will and skill for keeping others honest. And, increasingly, law enforcement, intelligence, and military agencies make their own rules.

The culture of impunity is not an exclusively Washington phenomenon, as demonstrated recently by the NYPD officers torturing a prisoner as they cried, “It’s Giuliani time.” Consider also that the UN estimates the worldwide drug trade accounts for 8% of the global economy — roughly equivalent to the world automobile industry or, in this country, to all state and local government. Is it possible that such a huge industry — alone among major economies — lacks easy access to every statehouse and major city hall?

Still Washington sets the tone, the style, and many of the new rules under which the country increasingly functions. These are not the rules we were taught in civics but the laws of competing mobs in control what we once thought was our capital.

We are talking here of culture, not of conspiracies. If you have a strong enough culture you don’t need a conspiracy. One of the reasons ethnic minorities and women continue to have such a hard time moving into the institutions of our country is precisely because there is no one to blame, no smoking gun, nothing on paper — only the stone wall of implicit values and ingrained behavior.

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