The description of the United States as the world’s policeman has always been laced with a heavy dose of irony and sarcasm. In democratic societies, the police are meant to uphold the law, but the U.S. has shown time and again that international legal conventions are not things to which the U.S. considers itself bound. From rejecting membership in the International Criminal Court to the invasion and occupation of Iraq to drone assassinations, the U.S. treats international legal frameworks like so many flies to be swatted away. This glaring double standard underlies much of the global animosity toward the U.S. in the post-9/11 era; while U.S. citizens accused of or subjected to criminal activity at home are entitled to their day in court, the rest of the world’s citizens are subject to U.S. power with little to no recourse to justice. In other words, the U.S. is a nation that respects the rule of law — but only within its own borders.
But 2014 has been a year in which the mythology of domestic U.S. legal egalitarianism — reinforced by the mantra of blind justice and a near religious reverence of the U.S. Constitution — was exposed as a pretense. As abroad, so at home: Some people are more equal than others.
News audiences confronted this reality, of course, in the aftermath of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The killing of an unarmed African-American teenager by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, and the widespread protests after the decision not to indict Wilson became front-page news worldwide. The sense was that there were not two but three sets of rules in the U.S.: one for white killers, one for black killers and one for police officers who killed black suspects. The subsequent killing of African-American Eric Garner by Daniel Pantaleo, a white New York City police officer, compounded public recriminations. Pantaleo used a chokehold on Garner — a technique in violation of NYPD policy (revised during the inquiry into his death to a legal headlock); in addition, the entire incident was recorded, with a video showing Garner begging for his life and repeating the now iconic phrase “I can’t breathe” 11 times. Yet again, no charges were filed.
The Brown and Garner cases raised broader questions about the use of state violence and the application of U.S. law. So too has the continued use of the death penalty. Though the fundamentally discriminatory application of the death penalty over the years has been well documented, 2014 provided shocking examples of how barbaric certain U.S. states were willing to become in their desperation to execute convicts. The botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, for example, in which untested intravenous drugs were used on the inmate (with gruesome results that the prison warden called “a bloody mess”) suggested a U.S. legal system approaching the conduct of some of the most brutal authoritarian regimes. It is one of the more hypocritical aspects of U.S. law that the same system that puts people to death by strapping them to tables and injecting them with poison operates under an Eighth Amendment ban on the use of cruel and usual punishment — which also, incidentally, bans the use of torture.
Speaking of torture: As 2014 drew to a close, another bombshell was dropped with the release of the summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture by the Central Intelligence Agency. The use of torture by the U.S. government was well known, but the level of detail in the report as well as the public debate in the U.S. that followed made it a watershed. Of course, a great deal of these activities during the “war on terrorism” were conducted on behalf of the U.S. by compliant allies, hidden behind Orwellian terms such as “extraordinary rendition” (kidnapping) and “enhanced interrogation” (torture). But much of the torture noted in the report took place at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, which both is and is not U.S. soil (depending on what suits the U.S. government at any given moment). Despite the fact that the United Nations Convention Against Torture was signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 and ratified in 1994, individuals were tortured at a U.S. military facility with the full knowledge and approval of George W. Bush’s White House. When confronted with the disturbing contents of the torture report, Americans were asked in multiple polls whether they felt torture — a violation of domestic and international law — was justified. The majority agreed that it was.
One thread ties together all these cases: The willingness of the U.S. to bend the law and condone the barbaric treatment of human beings is grounded in differences of race, ethnicity or religion. Police violence, the death penalty and torture are predominantly applied to nonwhites or non-Christians. How supportive would white Americans and lawmakers be of procedures such as “rectal rehydration” — a gruesome procedure that, according to the torture report, was applied to hunger-striking inmates — if they were performed on white Christians? How long would they would be to willing to tolerate routine police killings of unarmed white citizens?
2014 will be remembered for how the differences between international and domestic victims of U.S. power and between U.S. injustice abroad and at home became blurred. The U.S. has made much over the years of its “moral authority” on the international stage, but this year highlighted that, even at home, this authority is built on quicksand.