Tag Archives: Ramsey Clark

Remembering Ramsey Clark

12 Apr

Remembering Ramsey Clark

Ramsey Clark was a great man, and it was my privilege to work with him closely on several occasions. His death is a time to mourn, but it is also a time to remember who he was and why his life mattered in profound ways to so many people. 

I first met Ramsey under somewhat unusual circumstances. It was not long after the ending of the infamous Chicago 8 trial of 1969 that prompted Ramsey’s withdrawal from government, and it was just prior to the Harrisburg Kissinger Kidnapping Trial of Philip Berrigan, Elizabeth McAlister, Eqbal Ahmed, and several other for a fanciful alleged plot to kidnap Henry Kissinger while he was Secretary of State, at attractive phantasy but never planned beyond the musings of anti-war imaginaries. There were concerns about the future wellbeing of these idealistic defendants. because Harrisburg was deemed a conservative site for such a trial and that attempted kidnapping might produce lengthy prison sentences. With these considerations in mind, these defendants believed that it would be inflammatory to have the defense team led by a theatrical celebrity lawyer like William Kunstler who was seen as likely taunting and probably antagonizing judge, jury, and community. It was feared by friends of the defendants that such tensions could lead to a harsher sentence, however outlandish the charges.

The three best known defendants were my close friends, and I was asked to go meet Ramsey in Washington and see if he might be willing to represent the Berrigan/McAlister defense, which was delicate, as Bill Kunstler was their longtime devoted lawyer, friend, and devoted comrade. Ramsey was still in his Washington office shortly after leaving the government as its Attorney General, accompanied by gossip that LBJ hoped that Ramsey would become the next Texan to become a U.S. President. I was somewhat nervous about such a mission and intimidated by the prospect of meeting on my own about an ultra-sensitive issue with this high profile former government official who had this recent change of heart with respect to the Vietnam War. 

My anxieties were misplaced. I arrived on time, and was immediately ushered into Ramsey’s office, directed to a comfortable seat while he finished a phone call. As soon as I sat down, Ramsey tossed me a box of triscuits that had been on his desk, and fortunately I caught it or else legal history might have turned out differently. But what was disclosed by this trope was Ramsey’s unpretentious, casual, folksy, humble, and unassuming manner, which was a bit disconcerting as it was combined with a laser sharp mind and a character that could stand his ground as firmly as the most prized Texas Longhorn steer. When Ramsey’s phone call ended we talked without formality, as if friendly cousins who had much in common and had not seen each other recently. Our conversation ended with Ramsey agreeing to visit Philip Berrigan in a Danbury, Connecticut jail where he was serving time for prior acts of civil disobedience. Ramsey went on to represent and befriend the famed Berrigan brothers, at first only Philip at Harrisburg, bonded with them and the others on the legal team, and staked his claim, never to be relinquished, as America’s once mainstream nationally prominent civil servant, who became in the years after his heralded departure from government a renegade to those who identified with the establishment and a legendary hero to those of us who thirsted for progressive change.

For me Ramsey was a great man because of two extraordinary qualities:

–he never allowed his formidable ambition and public reputation stand in the way of principled action,resigning with cause from the highest echelons of government, burning his bridges of return by identifying openly with the radical wing of the anti-Vietnam War Movement. It has long surprised me how rare such displays of conscience are in American public lifeI could think of only Daniel Ellsberg who came close, who although acting from a lower level of prominence, made his notorious break with the government by way of high drama featuring the release of a large dossier of classified official documents relating to Vietnam policy, known to us as the Pentagon Papers that he expected to land him in prison for a lengthy sentence. Ramsey never wavered, and as far as I can tell, never regretted this momentous change from looking down from the pinnacles of public authority to looking up from the trenches of struggle on behalf of thoae marginalized and vulnerable at home and abroad. Ramsey, in common again with Dan, never lost his faith that the American way, politically and constitutionally, was the best path for governance, but if and only if it lived up to the Jeffersonian vision of political democracy so early encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence, which critics insist was already relegated to museum viewings by the more property-minded conservative U.S. Constitution.  

–Ramsey second quality that so impressed me was his fearlessness in the face of danger. We went together with Philip Luce to Iran at the climax of the revolution in early 1979, and had some harrowing experiences that shook my composure while leaving him unphased. I recall with especial vividness, as if yesterday, being together for lunch in the Iranian religious city of Qom after having just had an intellectually stimulating meeting with a leading Islamic figure, Ayatollah Shariat Maderi, who we were told was the best theological mind in Iran. After enjoying a simple Persian lunch on the central square, we ventured outside for a walk, soon to be confronted by young Iranians of high school age who identified us as Americans. They shouted in English chilling slogans: “Death to the Shah, Death to Americans.” Before we realized what was happening, hundreds more were attracted by the spectacle, some carrying posters with the picture of Ayatollah Khomeini. Two youthful ardent mullahs took over the spontaneous gathering, leading the chanting that raised the mob temperature to a fever pitch, which I interpreted as the prelude to a lynching. Ramsey standing tall amid the bloodthirsty crowd was as calm as if cutting a birthday cake. 

As might be obvious as I survived to recall the incident, our guides from Tehran finally managed to convince the mullahs that we were not CIA operatives or off-duty American soldiers, but had come to Iran at this time at the personal invitation of Mehdi Bazargan so as to understand that a popular revolution was underway, which was  revolutionary determined to transform the country but hoped it could avoid a feared U.S. intervention of the kind that had displaced the democratically elected Mohamed Mossadeq in 1953. With the switch in crowd mood from hostile to hospitable, Ramsey was fully at ease, while it took me time to quell my anxieties of a few minutes earlier when I was sure that I was on the verge of experiencing a bloody ending of my life. As it happened, we had meetings back in Tehran, declining offers of dinner by our former tormentors, and left in peace with the blessings of those whose chants had called for our death a short while ago.

–Ramsey had a third quality, which for most of us would have been sufficient to make most of us feel fulfilled in life, but for him merely added luster to those virtuous qualities that I believe he would have most wanted to be remembered for—principle above all else and fearlessness. As I was earning bread and board as a salaried intellectual, Ramsey’s third special quality aalone aroused my envy, knowing that the first two were beyond my reach. Ramsey possessed a prodigious storehouse of quotations from Rousseau, Jefferson, Locke, Oliver Wendell Holmes, FDR, JFK, Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others that he inserted effortlessly into his many extemporaneous talks during our times together, conveying the impression that he had internalized the wisdom of the ages. In addition, he was able to recall and distinguish what we were told by the numerous political and religious figures whom we had met day after day, reciting sentences verbatim, without ever taking a single note. I felt my mental inferiority, struggling to take down as much as I could from this fascinating array of individuals who met with us during those ten historic days in Iran during which the Shah left his throne forever, allowing the revolutionary movement to celebrate its extraordinary victory. All the while our modest mission dealt with a daunting schedule from dawn until the moon was high in the sky, and Ramsey gladly missed sleep rather than cancel even one of our scheduled meetings.

During this exhausting trip, climaxing with a long meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris, just prior to his return to Iran after 17 years spent in exile, we all learned a great deal, grateful for this exposure to the live tissue of revolution. I am tempted to set down as part of this concluding conversation with this future leader of Iran in the form of recalling this mysterious personage who was to dominate the political stage in his country for the rest of his life, but I will refrain. I did try to recall and appraise in my political memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim that published weeks ago, which devotes a long chapter to this Iranian visit, with Ramsey figuring larger than life in many of its aspects.

Having praised Ramsey, I want to acknowledge some minor reservations that caused some friction during this Iran experience, and an earlier one in the less fraught, yet still tense, circumstances of the Tunisian struggle for democracy in the face of dictatorial rule. We had been invited to the country to speak at a human rights conference in the capital city of Tunis, convened by the leading opposition figures. The public event was cancelled by government edict, and we tried our best to perform in private venues according to the wishes of our brave, unintimidated hosts. Ramsey was as in Iran a tower of strength, an eloquent voice for freedom, democracy, decency who avowed his solidarity with those in opposition who, unlike the revolutionaries in Iran, resembled American liberals, invoking John F. Kennedy as their model of governance.

My reservations may be linked in various ways to Ramsey’s virtues. I was at times embarrassed by his ‘lectures’ to eminent Iranian religious and political leaders in which he basically urged them to follow the path of American constitutionalism. Although he was all for their revolutionary struggle, he felt its outcome could be best realized by following the American lead. Our hosts were invariably polite, partly sensing the importance of winning the valuable support of such a high profile visitor who opposed in Iran what Washington was hoping for, but I also noticed that they were bored and despite their best efforts, inattentive, staring out the window, playing with a pen or pencil but refraining from taking notes. I believed then and still do, that these Iranians didn’t appreciate being instructed even by Ramsey about what was best for the future of their country, a place with a long history and deep distinctive cultural characteristics. In my view, even Ramsey didn’t understand that we lacked credibility to Instruct Iranians about how to construct their post-Shah future.

I was also bothered by Ramsey’s tendency to dominate these meetings, and our contacts with the media. I felt that I had some things worth saying as did our third companion, Phil Luce, a notable anti-war activist with a religious vocation, combining social shyness with political brashness. We both felt somewhat frustrated by this unintentional marginalization. I overcame my own deference to Ramsey to raise our concern somewhat timidly. He responded that he understood, but claimed that he was helpless, that the persons we encountered and the media were primarily interested in him because of his background. This was a large part of the story, but not the whole of it. Ramsey could have made space for us, but the more I observed him, the more I realized that he flourished in the limelight, and sought it. Putting all this in perspective, on reflection it is more impressive that someone so ambitious in a context that was within his comfort zone, could toss ambition aside when it encroached upon his principles of justice and truth. I learned so much more from Ramsey about being-in-the-world that perhaps I should have suppressed these petty reservations. These criticisms are do not dilute my admiration for the man and his life, although maybe these qualities might have limited the depth of our friendship to some degree.

One final thought. When I first knew Ramsey he was a different person in the presence of Georgia, his life partner, who brought him joy and loving companionship, as well as lightened his manner. Without Georgia, Ramsey was a different person, austere and totally serious even when off camera. I never had the feeling that Ramsey on his own was capable of self-indulgence—reading trashy novels or watching entertaining movies, following sports, playing games, and being silly. Maybe he exposed his less puritanical sides to others who were more intimate. The bottom line is that Ramsey Clark, in my book, was an American hero who coveted virtue more than power or profits, and more than most lived his truths to the fullest. 

Escaping The Abusive State: After Snowden

5 Dec

 

 

            The more contact one has with the modern state, even in those societies that have long constitutional traditions entrenching civil liberties, the more grounds there are for deep and growing concern. I suppose that the most dramatic exhibition of the dangers being posed as 2014 approaches, and we are reminded that this will be 30 years after 1984, are associated with Edward Snowden’s extraordinary disclosures of the global network of surveillance being operated by the National Security Agency in the United States (NSA).  Such a network presupposes that we are all, that is, every inhabitant on the planet to be regarded as worth investigating as potential terrorist threats, and along the way establishing a huge data bank of information that can be used for nefarious purposes at any point to disempower and subvert protest movements or even blackmail anyone seen to be obstructing projects dear to the government or any special interest group that has the government’s ear on matters it cares about.

 

            In important respects more disturbing than the Snowden revelations was the rabid response of the supposedly liberal government presided over by Barack Obama. No stone was left unturned, other than assassination or kidnapping, in the effort to gain physical custody over Snowden evidently with the intention of prosecuting him to the full extent of the law as an odious criminal offender. Foreign governments were badgered to cooperate in the pursuit, a plane carrying the Bolivian president was improperly denied access to the airspace of several European countries and forced to land in Vienna, because it was suspected of carrying Snowden. Such an enforcement dynamic completely overlooked the political nature of Snowden’s crimes, which have been uniformly regarded as placing an accused individual beyond the reach of extradition if outside of sovereign territory, which was definitely the case here, making Snowden legally unreachable even in the event that countries involved had extradition treaty arrangements for cooperative criminal law enforcement. Such treaties did not exist in relation to China and Russia, the countries where Snowden was physically present, and yet the United States persisted in its demands, and treated the Chinese and Russian governments as behaving in a hostile fashion of diplomatic relevance when they rejected the demands of the U.S. State Department to treat Snowden as a routine fugitive from criminal justice. Not so incidentally, the United States government has long shielded those accused of even violent crimes by foreign governments through reliance on this exception to extradition based on the political nature of the crime.

 

            Perhaps, the most troubling aspect of this still festering situation is the energy devoted to Snowden as the whistleblower, more derisively referred to as ‘a leaker,’ while ignoring implications for a humane and democratic future by treating everyone, everywhere as a potential enemy who would be spied upon to the extent technology allowed. There was some mild pushback by Congress, seeking clearer guidelines on the mandate of the NSA, and searching for the outer limits of the permissible encroachment on the privacy of individuals, governments, and economic entities. In the background is a well-grounded suspicion that part of the motivation for global surveillance is to assure a competitive edge for American property, trade, and investment interests, and to gain dirt on foreign diplomats and political leaders.

 

            Overlapping with the official fury directed at Snowden was the broader anger directed at whistleblowers whose disclosures sought to set off alarm bell. Those who had the temerity to disclose governmental criminal wrongdoing were themselves criminalized by a focus on their breach of  excessive classification restrictions. It should be clear, as highlighted by Daniel Ellsberg’s notable reflections on the release of the Pentagon Papers gathered in his book appropriately titled Secrets, that the excesses of governmental secrecy are joined at the hip to extravagant surveillance in what amounts to a perverse twinning relationship. The very government that refuses to accept restrictions on its invasions of the privacy of its citizens and people around the world, mounts unprecedented and simultaneous claims that it needs to operate without any accountability behind several high walls of secrecy.

 

            The experiences of Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning are of a piece with that of Edward Snowden: vindictive backlash, exaggerated security claims, and an arrogant refusal to gaze in the mirror. The Wikileaks/Manning disclosures revealed serious war crimes and governmental cover ups,  the existence of which make a strong case for violating pledges of secrecy that are relied upon to hide the ugly dimensions of what is involved in foreign policy, especially in relation military interventions carried out in such distant countries as Afghanistan and Iraq. Should not the American people have a write to know about state crimes committed in their name? Should not the peoples living in foreign countries have the right to know about such crimes that produce suffering and victimization in their supposedly sovereign countries? And when such disclosures do occur, should not the government have the decency to acknowledge its own wrongdoing, and thank the whistleblower and apologize to those who were victimized?

 

            My motivation in writing this piece was prompted by seemingly different more personal outrages associated with the behavior of the liberal state. In the first instance, I have been deeply moved by the continuing tragic saga of Lynne Stewart, a courageous American lawyer who has a long record of defending unpopular political and indigent clients, who has been allowed to languish for months in a Texas jail despite suffering from an acute form of terminal cancer. Her apparent crime that landed her in prison was to pass on information and private messages to the family of ‘the blind Sheik’ (Omar Abdel-Rahman) whom she was representing (alongside Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. Attorney General) in the terrorist conspiracy trial arising out of the earlier 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. What has been most shocking is that despite numerous recommendations from medical and prison officials to the effect that Stewart easily qualifies for ‘compassionate release’ from prison, a position even endorsed by judicial officials, she remains to this day cruelly confined because Charles Samuels,  Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons,  has refused to sign off on her plea. This incarceration of Lynne Stewart is such an extreme instance of vicious and sadistic state behavior toward an honorable citizen that its full horror cannot be fully comprehended by a mere description of her experience. For Lynne Stewart’s story to be credibly portrayed will likely depend on some future artistic enactment as by film or fiction. As so often is true, such a descent into the domain of unspeakable evil can only be grasped if expressed through film or fiction.

 

            My immediate reason for writing in this manner has been an unfolding tale of apparently well-intentioned cruelty by the state that occurred recently in Great Britain. A 35 year old pregnant Italian woman, whose name cannot be disclosed under British criminal law, was visiting the UK a few months ago for the sake of job training course at Stansted Airport in Essex, not far from London. While there she apparently stopped taking medication for a preexisting bipolar condition, resulting in what has been described in the media as ‘a panic attack.’

 

Only then did a perfect storm engulf her life. Her disturbed condition was reported to British authorities under the Mental Health Act whose personnel stepped in and took over the case. In disputed testimony the woman was alleged to need to be constrained. Accordingly, she was transferred to a mental hospital where she was heavily sedated, during which time her baby was delivered by C-Section surgery without her consent, and even her knowledge as she was unconscious. Her lawyer contends that she at all times, including when suffering from mental distress, retained the capacity to give or withhold her consent from the procedure undertaken. If correct, a state-ordered invasive approach to her pregnancy was certainly improper, a violation of the most basic of reproductive rights. Even if she was not sufficiently stable to make an informed decision, it seemed at least necessary to refer such a question to a responsible process of assessment, which was not done as far as is known, or consult with a family member.

 

But the abusive behavior did not stop after the child was born. Quite incredibly, some reports contend that she was not even allowed to see her own baby, while others say she was allowed for two days to have her baby in the hospital room, but it was then summarily removed with the intent to sever her connection permanently. She returned to Italy where her health and mental stability were fully restored by resuming medication at which point she appealed to British courts to acquire custody of the child who had by this time been turned over to foster care. Her appeal was denied despite her Italian nationality, place of residence, and the evidence that she was a competent mother to children growing up under her parental supervision. She didn’t owe the slightest allegiance to Britain and yet her desire and capacity to handle the upbringing of her biological child was rejected by judicial fiat. In a secondary development, her former husband, the father of the child, who was living in America appealed to a British court to have the child brought up by his sister, the aunt of the child, who was certified to be a highly responsible person with excellent parental qualifications and a readiness to undertake the task. The request was denied by the British judge on the ground that there was no ‘blood’ link with the American relative, and that kinship was not sufficient. The result, to date, is the assignment of the baby to a foster home that has no familial connection whatsoever, denying the mother even visitation rights. I doubt that even the most absolutist monarchy would be as contemptuous of humane treatment as has been the behavior of this British welfare/judicial bureaucratic nightmare, an unfolding post-Kafka horror story.

 

            Even granting the well-intentioned innocence of government in relation to these problematic undertakings affecting this mother and child, it is one more distressing example of what happens to people when the government insists that it knows best what to do in situations of admitted social and ethical complexity.  In this instance, it is not acting beyond the law or above the law, but within the law. What took the place was decreed from start to finish by official institutions and administered by bureaucrats probably thinking that they were doing their job in a responsible fashion. As has been observed in some critical writing in the British print media, this story has come to light in part because the victim mother had the resources and composure to seek help from lawyers and friends, as well as the Italian government, and was perceived as a ‘European.’ If instead she was an unlawful immigrant or, worse, a Roma, it is likely that the public would never even have heard of these events, and the whole episode would have been kept within the black box of standard operating procedures when it came to handling the grievances of those among us who are unwanted and marginalized.

 

            In my view, these seemingly disparate occurrences are all expressions of the moral arrogance of the modern liberal state, and its failure to strike a decent balance between freedom and security.  There is no doubt that the recent challenges posed by extremist non-state actors do require adjustments in how government protects those resident within its borders, but the tendency to exaggerate the threat so as to instill sufficient fear in the population to justify the wide spectrum of responses that feature high defense spending, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib at one end and Snowden and Manning at the other end is what should be an occasion for an entirely rational collective panic attack in democratic societies, showing healthy signs of deep attachment to the values and practices of freedom, and when there is instead relative quiet, it adds to concerns about a general mood of passivity, resignation, and even acquiescence in ‘the new authoritarianism,’ encouraging more of the same. Such patterns in the domain of national security is  reinforced by such gratuitous abuses as when harmless prisoners are deprived of contact with their loved ones when at death’s doorstep and a newborn child is removed forever from the love and care of a desiring mother for the sake of some misguided ideas of petty bureaucrats engaged in  ‘social services’ and ‘welfare.’ 

 

            We can and must do better, above all as citizens engaged in the protection of the sort of society we wish to live in; without civic activism of a militant character we can wave goodbye to the promise of genuine democracy.