Unequal Punishment: The Architects of the Iraq War Still Walk Free

The twentieth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq reminded me of something I will be bitter about for the rest of my life. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld are responsible for up to a million violent deaths in Iraq. I was responsible for blocking the entrance to a federal courthouse in an anti-war civil disobedience action. Suffering the consequences is part of the deal when you do civil disobedience, and I accepted them readily. The paltry few days of community service I received as punishment for that action was worse than anything the architects of the war have suffered — and, of course, incomparably less than what the people of Iraq have. I’m still mad about it. It is absurd and unacceptable that they have been able to live out their lives in peace and comfort considering the enormity of the crimes they committed two decades ago.

On March 21, 2003, I was part of a group of eleven people who blocked the entrance to the federal courthouse in Camden, New Jersey in a civil disobedience action against the war that began a day earlier. Some of us, including myself, were students at the Rutgers University campus in Camden. Others were peace activists living in and around the city. We organized together in a local progressive group called Greater Camden Unity Coalition. In blocking the courthouse, we sought to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Camden 28, a group of anti-war activists who raided the local draft board in 1971 to protest the Vietnam war. After refusing to move for about 30 minutes, we were arrested and booked at the local police station. We were subsequently sentenced to community service, and since the academic year was about to end, the court assigned me to do mine at Cattus Island State Park in my hometown of Toms River, New Jersey.

Cattus Island is a small state park squeezed, in impeccably Jersey fashion, between strip malls, a funeral home, and the Catholic parish where I went to church on one side and the Barnegat Bay on the other. It’s a strange little oasis of marshes and scrub pines, where ospreys nest and deer feed on wild blueberries. A visit can make you forget that you’re just a stone’s throw from where The Situation, Snooki, and the other Jersey Shore cast members made the “GTL” lifestyle world famous. For a few days in the summer of 2003, I cleaned park bathrooms, raked rocks, and straightened up after summer camp class visits. My “favorite” task was probably washing off the rubber fish the kids used to make gocco prints to take home with them. Cleaning park bathrooms was less enjoyable. But this was less galling than being driven out to a marsh with a pair of galoshes and a shovel, and dropped off with orders to dig up a small tree for some unfathomable reason. As I labored under the wilting sun, I wondered what George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld were doing at that moment and drove my shovel into the muddy roots with ever-increasing anger.

Those bastards should have been out there digging up trees and scrubbing down toilets, not me. I wasn’t the one with the blood of a nation on my hands — they were. Roughly a decade ago activists filed a criminal complaint against Bush in Geneva for violating international conventions against torture, but neither he nor any of his confederates have been charged with any crimes stemming from the war in Iraq. The International Criminal Court (ICC) recently issued an arrest warrant for Russian president Vladimir Putin for war crimes. Putin is certainly guilty, and deserves to spend the rest of his miserable life behind bars for the death and destruction he unleashed on Ukraine. But he is no less guilty than his U.S. counterparts, who also launched an unprovoked and unjustifiable war of aggression in violation of international law. They are every bit as criminal as Putin, but their positions at the apex of world power will prevent them from ever being charged, much less prosecuted for their crimes. 

One hopes that Rumsfeld is suffering the eternal torments of Dante’s ninth circle of Hell, and that Bush and Cheney will eventually join him there. But the failure to hold them to account during their time on earth — followed shortly by the failure to make the culprits of the global financial crisis face the music for their own crimes — created a culture of elite impunity that has corroded political and social life in the United States and around the world. The blatant double standards make people cynical and nihilistic, the ideal conditions for the growth of irony poisoning, conspiracy mongering, and ultimately fascism. 

Bush’s latter-day interest in painting, like his Freudian slip correctly equating the Iraq and Ukraine wars, betrays a guilty conscience. The man is obviously haunted by the knowledge of what he’s done and what he’s responsible for. But that is cold comfort for the millions of people, Iraqi and American alike, who have suffered and died as a result of the decisions he and his collaborators made twenty years ago. I’m still angry for spending a few days of my life doing scutwork at a state park for protesting the war. But this is nothing compared to the larger and lasting damage they and everyone who failed to hold them accountable have done. They did the crimes, and the rest of us are still paying the price.