Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence. She writes a regular column for The New Republic.
Now that Nafissatou Diallo has taken the extraordinary step of telling the public her version of what Dominique Strauss-Kahn did to her at the Sofitel Hotel in clinical and tearful detail, I found myself revisiting the many dispiriting thoughts that have come to me regarding this case. When I first read the New York Times report of what happened, I was revolted. And so I read with approval all the criticism of the blinding arrogance and staggering stupidity of powerful men like Dominique Strauss-Kahn who had abused their position and taken advantage of women. I felt a kind of moral satisfaction when I saw a picture of a crowd of hotel maids (mostly minority and I assumed poorly paid) assembled in front of the courthouse yelling "shame" at Strauss-Kahn when he appeared for his arraignment.
Then it turned out the accuser was an "unreliable witness." She had lied on her application for asylum, she had lied on her income tax returns, she had been less than forthright about her boyfriend in jail, and she had told conflicting stories about what happened after she was allegedly sexually assaulted by Strauss-Kahn. She was a liar, the consensus emerged but, as commentators who were still sympathetic to her pointed out, that did not mean that she was lying about what Strauss-Kahn did to her in the hotel room. Yet, even as I continued to entertain that possibility, I felt the force of the outraged reaction of the French to what they saw as a barbaric legal system, inflamed and abetted by a salacious, rumor-mongering press — and I understood. I cringed as I thought about the infamous "perp walk" (that awful little phrase) and felt the hollowness, as I have often felt before, of our vaunted legal principle of the presumption of innocence.
From there, and before I could help it, I felt myself being pushed into a familiar and discomfiting inner dialogue that starts with acknowledging the distressing truth that I somehow manage to live, as do most people, as if I did not know about the odious barbarisms of our legal system. The leering spectacle of the "perp walk" is the least of it. There is the matter of the accused who are put behind bars in large holding cells with other alleged criminals with no modicum of privacy often for days at a time until they are arraigned. And of course this indignity is nothing when compared with the intimidating, violent, dehumanizing conditions that convicted criminals are notoriously made to suffer on a daily basis. Which made me think of the even more extreme brutality, the disgraceful lawlessness of "extraordinary rendition," Abu-Ghraib, and Guantanomo. And this returned me to the question of why those who are presumed innocent until proven guilty--and here I wasn't thinking of alleged terrorists but rather people without criminal records who must be held somewhere before they are arraigned--are not provided with conditions that at least approximate, say, a college dormitory or hospital room.
Which prompted me to reflect on how we, as a society, treat the most vulnerable among us. The military reverberations of the word "vulnerable"--unguarded, unfortified, defenseless--as well as its more visceral associations--exposed, naked--I felt intensely as I thought about the hard attitude rampant today that everyone is on his or her own, not only poor families struggling to survive (cuts to welfare), but also children (cuts to education) and the elderly (cuts to Medicare and Social Security); and the ruthless attitude equally rampant today that no one owes anybody anything, that any "sacrifice" in the name of the public good, of the world we share together, our commonwealth, is too much to ask of anyone.
Which made me think of the current "showdown" on raising the debt ceiling. (I hate the cowboy rhetoric that degrades our political disputes about how we should live as a nation to the level of a lawless shooting match; Bush's blustering invocation of the "Wanted: Dead or Alive" poster as our national policy for dealing with bin Laden still makes me wince.) I thought of all the articles I have been reading about the obscene gap between how the extremely rich and the rest of us live in this country, not only in the usual terms of wealth and consumption but also in the less tangible but more essential and urgent terms of health and longevity.
Which brought me to the Republicans who refuse even to consider raising taxes on those to whom it would make no difference whatsoever, their parrot-like response that higher, fairer taxes are a "job killer" — "blah, blah, blah," as Tom Geoghegan so eloquently put it in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on why we should raise the amount paid to Social Security recipients).
Which made me think of the people who associate themselves with the Tea Party and who regard our government as the enemy, which brought to mind a photograph I saw of a man wearing a red, white, and blue top hat holding a home-made sign at a Tea Party rally that read "Hands Off My Social Security."
This led me to recall additional articles I have been reading lately about the Fortune 500 corporations that do not pay any taxes at all (General Electric and Bank of America head this list) and about corporations that have more and better-paid accountants and lawyers working in their financial departments devoted to tax evasion than the government has IRS agents. We apparently have come to a point where the very minimal requirement of public obligation--paying taxes--is no longer recognized by large numbers of Americans as legitimate.
This made me think of the shops in Soho that keep their doors wide open all summer long, the sheer mad waste of energy as the cold, air-conditioned air pours out onto the street, not a thought or care about the future--have they never heard of global warming?--let alone that a war is being fought in Iraq, that men and women are dying every day, for oil. Which made me think of the energy standards for new cars recently proposed by the Obama administration (56.2 miles per gallon by 2025; Europe is expected to reach 60 m.p.g. by 2020) and the predictable response by car-industry lobbyists that I read in the newspaper--that Americans will not want to buy smaller, lighter cars that will be made expensive because of higher fuel-efficiency standards. I wondered if this statement were just another self-serving ploy or whether it reflected a better understanding of the psychology and moral compass of the American consumer than my own. At that moment I pictured the small, elegant, well-designed cars that are everywhere in Europe but not available here.
Exasperated by that image, a very familiar thought crossed my mind: that America is the only "developed" country in the world that does not have a national health program. These distinct differences, it occurred to me, are undoubtedly what is meant by "American exceptionalism" today.
All the while, other thoughts kept nagging at me relating to the Strauss-Kahn case. Things like the unfair economic burden placed on the falsely accused, how they must pay for their own defense or hope for the best under the ministrations of a court-appointed defender (and if it is a civil suit, they have no choice but to pay, as there are no public defenders, while their accusers have the luxury of attorneys who work on contingency fees); to add insult to injury, if they are vindicated, they are not recompensed. I thought of the fabulously rich Strauss-Kahn and how he has at his disposal the best attorneys that money can buy.
Then I recalled the self-congratulatory pieces I had been reading about how in America the word of an immigrant hotel maid is equal to that of a powerful, wealthy man, how in America everyone is equal under the law, and I could only wonder at this willful blindness to the distinct advantages of the rich accorded by our legal system.
The idea of the corruption of our legal system took hold of me, with a passing and kindred thought about how completely money has corrupted political campaigns, as I remembered the Egyptian banker who, around the same time as the Strauss-Kahn case was entering the news, was charged with the felony of sexual abuse of yet another hotel maid. Anxious to return to Egypt, he accepted a misdemeanor plea-bargain that has a lesser legal status than subway fare-hopping; instead of a possible seven years in prison, he spent five days at a Manhattan soup kitchen fulfilling his sentence of community service (though the maid has now filed a $5 million civil suit against him). Is there anything more corrosive to our sense of justice than permitting people to admit to lesser crimes so as to put an end to their legal troubles? For the innocent man or woman, this moral bartering is a humiliating charade and when it comes to the guilty and their victims, let alone society at large, it reveals a mind-numbing contempt for justice. What could possibly be its rationale except the quicker movement of cases through an overly burdened system? Could anyone, I wondered, have set out to design a system that better institutionalizes cynicism about telling the truth and lying, crime and punishment?
Which made me think of the woman who is accusing Strauss-Kahn of attacking her and the lies she told that deprived her of the status of "credible" witness. I thought of how often I have remarked to my husband about the pervasiveness of lying, of fraud today, how even upright, law-abiding citizens have adopted, with few pangs of conscience, the attitude that every misfortune--a fire, a car accident, a slip on a market floor, a minor injury at work, a neighbor's leaky plumbing, bedbugs--is a potential economic opportunity. The padding of expense accounts, shoplifting, cheating on tests, plagiarism by TV pundit historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin--these moral misdemeanors, casual and pervasive as they are, have acquired a trivial feel. That is, until they matter, as in the Strauss-Kahn case where the accuser declared a friend's child as a dependent on her tax returns to increase her tax refund, or when it was discovered that two women whom President Clinton nominated for U.S. Attorney General had employed illegal aliens to look after their children ("Nanny-gate"). I couldn't help thinking that these kinds of fibs, small-scale and widespread, pale next to the lawlessness exemplified by the outrageous mortgage scams perpetuated by Wall Street and banks deemed "too big to fail."
And once the delirious destruction of our economy and the catastrophic state and federal shortfalls that have been its result entered my mind, I thought of how few people have been held legally accountable. There was the lawsuit that the government brought against Goldman Sachs last year for misleading investors in a subprime mortgage "product" as the housing market began to collapse, but in this case, too, an insidious form of plea-bargaining carried the day. A so-called settlement was reached where Goldman Sachs agreed to pay a mere $550 million when earlier, a trial and $19 billion fine had been in the offing. Such is the gleeful lawlessness of Wall Street that investors celebrated the government's extraordinary leniency by buying stock in the crooked company, sending Goldman Sachs's stock shares 5 per cent higher, which added far more to its market value than the amount imposed by the settlement.
Which made me think of all the honest, law-abiding people who, caught up in the delirium of the housing craze, took out loans that they must have known they could not afford. Given that we have become a country of casual law-breakers, it is unlikely that they felt as if they were doing anything wrong. In any case, they had the ready rationale that everyone was doing the same thing, that it is part of the system, part of the game. That is certainly what a number of people who worked at Standard and Poor's and at Moody's have said when asked why they gave triple-A credit ratings to "complex" subprime mortgage instruments that they very well knew were risky. This is how we live now. The incapacity to feel like you are doing something wrong even when you know are doing something morally questionable, even illegal--is that what it feels like to be corrupted? I wondered if Bernard Madoff now feels as if he did anything wrong. His lies and cheating are of course of a different magnitude and it made me think of what Hannah Arendt once wrote about thinking as a dialogue with one's self, that what sets criminals apart from rest of us is that when they do something reprehensible, they manage to live with themselves, that they have no conscience. I began to feel mentally--or more accurately, morally--paralyzed so I decided to go up to the roof garden in our building for relief. But on all the surrounding roof-tops, there were loud, gigantic air-conditioning units, their constant buzzing punctuated only by the sound of honking horns on the street below that becomes a parking lot on Fridays in the summer as those who can afford to do so, make their way, inch by inch, out of the city.