Fresh off her multi-day Twitter storm over the influence of pro-Israel lobbying groups on U.S. foreign policy, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., faced off with Trump administration regime change guru Elliott Abrams in a Congressional hearing Feb. 13.
Omar spent her four-minute questioning period running down the Reagan-era official’s sordid history in U.S. foreign policy: his role in covering up the El Mozote massacre of 1981; his support for the genocidal dictator Efraín Ríos Montt of Guatemala; his defense of U.S.-trained death squads in El Salvador and Nicaragua; and his role in the Iran-Contra affair, for which he eventually pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress.
Obviously exasperated with the ordeal, Abrams dismissed Omar’s concerns about his respect for human rights in Latin America. He was quickly joined by the whole of the foreign policy consensus, which denounced Omar for her lack of tact and civility in dealing with an elder statesman of U.S. policy.
Yet for a witness whose history is defined by his support for death squads and dictators across Central America – each at the height of its crimes – what civility can possibly be due?
It would be fair to say only as much as Abrams has shown to his thousands of victims over the course of his career: none at all.
Facing slight discomfort over his sordid past is the smallest possible sacrifice Abrams can make to atone for his crimes. And unless a federal court can convict him of complicity in nearly 300,000 deaths and sentence him to serve out the remainder of his life in a supermax prison, a Congressional grilling will have to suffice.
Of course, most Americans are uncomfortable seeing such a high-ranking official berated or even jailed for what was ostensibly a difference of opinion in Cold War strategy. The subtitle of Abrams’s 1992 book, Undue Process, even reads, “A Story of How Political Differences Are Turned Into Crimes.”
But it is no mere “political difference” to support or oppose the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. It makes no difference to the victims of Abrams’s policy – be it support for death squads, dictators or drone strikes – whether they are killed in the name of anti-communism, anti-terrorism or any other buzzword du jour. They’re dead either way, and there’s no magical incantation like “collateral damage” or “strategic error” that can bring them back from the dead.
In that way, there are just two differences between lay criminals like any common murderer and state criminals like Abrams and his kin. Most obviously, in terms of scale, the former are responsible for just a few deaths each, while the latter reach into five, six or seven digits.
Just as crucially, justice is never served to Abrams or those like him. Henry Kissinger remains a respected sage to Congress and the president, and both John McCain and George H.W. Bush were eulogized glowingly after their deaths last year, despite having been responsible for untold human suffering. In every case, the undeserved norm of civility prevails.
In lieu of real consequences, then, the only option is to set aside civility and begin to remind war criminals and state terrorists of their crimes – aggressively, publicly and unceasingly – until justice prevails.
This column was submitted for consideration in The Forum's search for "the next great columnist."