“Low Life Scum” Considered

Feeling Sorry for McCain, Kissinger, and Other Living Dead

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste…
– “
Sympathy for the Devil,” The Rolling Stones

Would you want to change places with a despised war criminal? Seriously, would you want to live as a guilty monster, unwilling to see yourself clearly even in a mirror, at the end of a career of criminal cruelty that has made you hated by millions if not billions of your fellow humans, never knowing if those who politely fawn on your excellence don’t secretly despise you behind your back? Would you really like to change places with John McCain or Henry Kissinger? With Dick Cheney or George Bush or Donald Rumsfeld or any of hundreds of other predators still at large?

Would you really want to be one of those people with so little essential humanity that you’re incapable of feeling and expressing the slightest guilty conscience for even the most extreme of your crimes against humanity?

These questions arise amidst reaction to the scene at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on January 29, when the committee decided it would be useful to hear from a nonagenarian former secretary of state and unindicted war criminal named Henry Kissinger.  As reported by the Associated Press in the New York Times, this appearance of a former government official, who was an architect of American failures from Viet-Nam to Chile, left unasked the question: why would the Senate leadership today want to hear from a man so steeped in making war – and losing?

The question of war or peace is a question the Times and most of the mainstream media would rather not consider, even though they’re covering a Congress that has been noisy with war drums for months, or years now.

For Armed Services chairman McCain to seek the advice of Kissinger, accompanied by former secretaries of state George Shultz and Madeleine Albright, does not send a peace-keeping signal to the country or the world.  Albright, recall, has yet to express regret for her part in killing half a million Iraqi children, by supporting a sanctions policy about which she said: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.” [The collateral damage of child-killing has been acceptable to American policy makers for at least seventy years and these three witnesses have yet to take exception to it.]

Code Pink attempted a citizens’ arrest of Kissinger for war crimes

According to the Senate calendar, the committee hearing was “to examine global challenges and the U.S. national security strategy,” again raising the implicit question of why the Senate would want to hear from people who were associated with the worst national security failures of the past half century, people who remain in substantial denial about the scale of their failures. As the hearing began, Kissinger joined the others at the witness table and perhaps a dozen Code Pink members with several signs and a pair of plastic handcuffs started demonstrating to “Arrest Kissinger for War Crimes.” Calm was restored in about two minutes, during which Kissinger sat impassively and unthreatened, paying almost no attention to the demonstrators. At the same time, Albright squirmed restlessly in her seat and Shultz stood up and shouted at Code Pink.

As the hearing room was cleared of the peaceful, unresisting protestors, chairman McCain shouted, “Get out of here, you low-life scum.” There were no arrests. Later McCain apologized “profusely” to Kissinger, commenting incredibly and hyperbolically that: “I have never seen anything as disgraceful and outrageous and despicable as the last demonstration that just took place.”

The war crimes case against Kissinger is well known and detailed by, among others, the late Christopher Hitchins in his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger [2001, also an excellent 2002 movie]. Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin has previously challenged President Obama for his war crimes, particularly torture and assassination by drone. The day after this hearing, Benjamin issued a piece titled “Who’s the ‘Low Life Scum:’ Kissinger or CODEPINK?” in which she outlined Kissinger’s most egregious crimes against Viet-Nam, Chile, East Timor, and the United States.

Benjamin suggested that McCain might have read the East Timor report by the UN Commission on Human Rights describing the horrific consequences of that Kissinger-backed invasion:

It includes gang rape of female detainees following periods of prolonged sexual torture; placing women in tanks of water for prolonged periods, including submerging their heads, before being raped; the use of snakes to instill terror during sexual torture; and the mutilation of women’s sexual organs, including insertion of batteries into vaginas and burning nipples and genitals with cigarettes.

If he read that report, would McCain still say: “I have never seen anything as disgraceful and outrageous and despicable as the last demonstration that just took place.” Probably, given that those practices were part of Henry Kissinger’s “great service” to his nation.

McCain defends a man who gave him four more years as a POW

I’d like to apologize for allowing such disgraceful behavior towards a man who has served his country with the greatest distinction, I apologize profusely,” McCain said to the national security bureaucrat who had been instrumental in extending McCain’s suffering as a prisoner of war in North Viet-nam for four years more than necessary. McCain was captured in October 1967. In 1968 Richard Nixon was elected president, thanks in part to his “secret plan” to end the Viet-nam War. Nixon-Kissinger proceeded to expand the war into Cambodia and Laos, and to extend the war by another four years. McCain was freed in 1973. What must it be like inside McCain’s head where bombing and invading neutral countries, killing thousands more Americans and Vietnamese, and extending his own POW captivity somehow all becomes “the greatest distinction”? Why aren’t those realities better characterized as the soulless power politics of a world class low life scum?

But McCain’s is another old story, his record of loving to send Americans to die in stupid wars is well-documented, as is his continued eagerness for more carnage, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or Iran, or even all four, or more. Tim Dickenson took McCain apart in Rolling Stone in 2008 and Carl Gibson has done so again on RSN this year.

McCain and Kissinger are surely deserving of the fullest prosecution for the enormity and depravity of the horrors they’ve helped unleash on their country and the world. But to focus on them is too easy, too much in the past, too much beside the point, except that they still command respect from others in and out of government, others who will willingly follow in their blood-drenched footsteps for the sake on no admirable, coherent, or even sane goal. The present Armed Services Committee, faced with three mass murderers, was nothing but fawning and respectful.

War and war crimes are what we do, and who will say we shouldn’t? 

Chairman McCain shows no awareness of past war crimes, much less any inclination to avoid future war crimes as needed. Among Republican Senators on the committee, will there emerge the realism and caution needed to serve the world well from members like James Inhofe or Ted Cruz, Jeff Sessions or Kelly Ayotte, Joni Ernst, Mike Lee, Lindsey Graham or any of the others from whom we’ve yet to hear anything like a nuanced ethics in foreign policy or a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.

The ranking Democrat is Jack Reed, whose quiet opposition to the Iraq war has been quiet to a fault, amounting to tepid acquiescence. And Reed has been quite silent on holding war criminals to account for torture, killing civilians, or anything else. Can we expect any less ineffective “opposition” from Senators like Bill Nelson or Claire McCaskill, Joe Manchin or Jeanne Shaheen, ?irsten Gillebrand, Richard Blumenthal, Tim Kaine or the rest of these silent accomplices to chronic American violation of the world’s human rights standards?

Will the only Independent on the committee, Angus King of Maine, actually display any serious independence when it comes to the next war, or any of the current wars and their associated crimes?

None of these Senators has shown the capacity to face the reality of past American crimes against humanity, much less call for accountability from their perpetrators.  Why should we even hope they won’t embrace the failures of the past as the policy of the future? What’s to keep them from perpetuating the old ways of thinking and acting, as represented by Kissinger, Albright, and Shultz? Even when those three talk, as they did, about climate change being the single most pressing threat facing both the U.S., and the world, is there any senator on that committee who can hear that warning over the relentless shrieking-in-horror over ISIS or Ukraine or Iran? What reason is there to believe that these senators aren’t just more war-criminals-in-waiting?

The United States has achieved much since 1945, and the achievements have come at awful cost as well. It is as if we have reached a collective moment of mid-passage uncertainty where, like Macbeth, we might well ponder where we’re headed:

By the worst means, the worst. For mine own good,
All causes shall give way. I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

To achieve justice, a society must value and seek justice

None of this is reason to let those former zombie leaders off their own hooks.  We as a country, as a moral society, still need to arrest these people, bring them to trial, and hold them accountable for the war crimes, torture, suffering, and death they have inflicted on others, and sometimes on us, all in our name. Accountability for the past is the surest safeguard for the future. We need to restore some semblance of justice to a culture grown numb and vicious. And to roll back some of that numb viciousness, we need to proceed with relentless compassion, and even with a willingness to embrace mercy for any who might finally come to seek truth and reconciliation.

There’s little reason to think that what we need to be a healthy, honest, open culture is anything like what we’re going to get. Both Houses of Congress are dominated by macho posturing and excited foreplay for war. The American police state slowly rises, unchecked even when it’s noticed. The populace seems restless and unhappy and full of blame for others without agreement on what is wrong. It is as if we have come no distance at all from 50 years ago, when our government started assassinating non-violent Black Panther Party members in a murderously successful suppression of human freedom led by the FBI.

It is as if we still believe the formulation of FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, that crippled monster who said without fear of contradiction: “Justice is merely incidental to law and order.”

He had it precisely backwards then, and as a nation we still do.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A collection of his essays, EXCEPTIONAL: American Exceptionalism Takes Its Toll (2019) is available from Yorkland Publishing of Toronto or Amazon. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.