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Murder in Two Dimensions

by James Graham 

Posted: 23 April 2013
Word Count: 1435
Summary: I know the topic of this article may not be common knowledge. It's up to me to make the point clearly. Let me know if you think it suceeds or not. Don't hold back.

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Murder in Two Dimensions

I'd like to draw an outrageous comparison between two Americans.

Aileen Wuornos, packaged by the media as 'America's first female serial killer', volunteer for execution.

And Henry Kissinger, winner of a Nobel Peace Prize, packaged by the media and by his own efforts as one of America's greatest diplomats and statesmen, assiduous evader of arrest and trial on charges of crimes against humanity.

There are many questions already. But the key question is raised in a reference made by the late Christopher Hitchens in his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger.* If we allow Kissinger's impunity to persist, says Hitchens, 'we shall shamefully vindicate the ancient philosopher Anacharsis, who maintained that laws were like cobwebs; strong enough to detain only the weak, and too weak to hold the strong.'

First I want to consider two aspects of the Wuornos case.

One is personal. Her mother, Diane Wuornos, abandoned her and her brother Keith and they were brought up by the Wuornos grandparents. Both grandparents drank heavily. The grandfather beat her, and the grandmother failed to protect her from his abuse. At 15 she became pregnant, and gave birth to a son who was taken away from her. Keith, whom she loved better than anyone else in her whole life, died at 21 of throat cancer. For the rest of her life she was consumed with anger and hatred. She hated men more than she hated women, but her resentments against people in general were pretty strong and seldom left her.

In an argument about crime and punishment, what's the point of stating these facts? Is it to excuse her? Not at all: not everyone who has an emotionally deprived and distorted childhood, even one as crippling as this, goes on to commit seven murders. But it contributes to an understanding of Wuornos as a human being. Her childhood, her genetic make-up, and the society into which she was born - not least the American 'right to bear arms' - take us a long way towards that difficult understanding. Actually, the more one reads about her the less difficult it is to comprehend: if ever there was an archetypal victim it would be Aileen Wuornos.

The other aspect briefly concerns that process which is usually 'strong enough to detain the weak'. As one would expect, police forensic, ballistic and computer work was assiduous - all more or less typical (though not universal) features of American law enforcement. The quest to locate her and crack the codes of her various aliases covered several states. As soon as they knew their target, Florida police tracked her down and arrested her within four days. The machinery and manpower of the state for seeking out and detaining the angry and murderous weak is of course well established. In contrast, something which is also typical of American justice: when she came to trial her defence was disgracefully inadequate.

Which brings us to Kissinger.

Kissinger has been accused of war crimes in Cambodia, Laos, Chile, Timor, Cyprus and elsewhere, as well as complicity in at least one individual murder - that of the Chilean general Rene Schneider, the man most likely to thwart Nixon and Kissinger’s plan to eliminate democracy in Chile and replace it with a ‘friendly’ dictatorship.

The grounds for these accusations were comprehensively argued by Hitchens and others. In the case of Chile, President Salvador Allende had been elected under a democratic system which had been in place for the best part of a century. Allende was no Saddam Hussein; he was committed to democracy. The trouble was, he wanted to nationalise the mining corporations and use the revenues to finance health services, education and welfare. He was falsely branded a Communist, and Nixon and Kissinger were out to get him. Some elements of the Chilean army were in favour of a military coup, but General Schneider, who was commander-in-chief, was firmly opposed. Through the CIA, Kissinger and his aides supported the rebel factions with money and weapons, and actively encouraged them to assassinate Schneider - and they duly obliged. It was the start of a chain of events which led finally to the bombing of Allende’s presidential residence - on the other 9/11, 11th September 1973 - Allende’s death, and the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

In the case of Laos and Cambodia, had it not been for the actions of Kissinger and Nixon, in sabotaging the Paris peace negotiations set up by the Johnson administration - the Vietnam war would more than likely have been over by 1970. Instead there followed a huge extension of the war to Laos and Cambodia, and the terrible years of the 'killing fields'. But there were two phases of this genocide. Before Pol Pot came to power in 1975, the Nixon-Kissinger administration devastated Cambodia over a period of five years, the first half of what a Finnish government study referred to as a 'decade of genocide’. Then the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot took power, leading to another infamous five years of slaughter, remembered as ‘The Killing Fields’. What is less well remembered is that the 'secret bombing' of Cambodia on the orders of Nixon and Kissinger may have killed as many Cambodians as were executed by the Khmer Rouge.

To convey the scale of this American crime, I shall capriciously omit statistics of those killed during the actual bombardments. Instead, a somewhat off-centre statistic: 12,000 Laotians were killed or injured by unexploded ordnance every year of the decade after the end of the US bombing.

In certain specific ways, it might be said, Kissinger was not solely responsible. He had the backing of a democratically-elected president. There is always pressure from the arms industry to make war rather than make peace. As turkey farmers need Christmas, so the arms industry needs war. But Kissinger and Nixon held state power, and even within a hierarchy of responsibility, they cannot avoid primary responsibility. The buck stops with them. (Nixon, however, is no longer with us; Kissinger is.)

The killings attributed to Kissinger were, of course, not committed by him. Unlike those of Wuornos, they were not ‘hands on’. But they took place as a result of his exercise of power, and as a direct result of his decisions. Clearly this is a more complex issue, and international law against the indiscriminate killing of non-combatants is not as simple as the ordinary criminal law against murder. But the case against Kissinger, the charge that he repeatedly breached international law, is very convincing.

Aileen Wuornos killed and robbed seven men. Her crimes were - which word shall I choose? - appalling, disgusting, abhorrent. What of Kissinger's alleged crimes? Appalling, undoubtedly. No more appalling than those of Wuornos merely in terms of scale: seven dead or seven million, each one is a desecration of human life. No more appalling: certainly no less so.

Theories of parallel universes spring to mind. We are told there may be, among countless others, a universe in which Elvis Presley is still alive and Scotland won the World Cup. Or one in which Al Gore was the 43rd President of the United States. But in the two cases before us, two universes appear side by side; we can observe both at the same time.

In the Wuornos dimension, the prosecution is strong and the defence is weak; in the Kissinger dimension, the prosecution is relatively powerless and the defence is both strong and very shrewd. In the Wuornos universe, the offender is hunted down and killed; in the Kissinger universe, he is celebrated, at least by a faithful - not to say infatuated - minority. In the unsparing world of Aileen Wuornos, there is no means of self-legitimation; in the privileged world of Kissinger, the powerful are bonded to a system that legitimises crimes for which others have to pay the ultimate price.

Perhaps somewhere a world exists in which every aspiring political leader knows before taking office that very distinct lines have been drawn, and that for certain kinds of action he will be brought to justice as surely as any 'common' criminal.

As things are, however, as soon as we reflect on justice and the sanctity of human life we find these two parallel universes opening up before our eyes in the plain light of reality: the universe of power and impunity, and that other dimension in which the tragic Aileen Wuornos, consumed with hatred and bitterness, out of her own damaged psyche inflicted so much harm on others - and paid the price.

*Christopher Hitchens: The Trial of Henry Kissinger (Verso Books 2001).

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Comments by other Members

Jennifer1976 at 13:05 on 25 April 2013  Report this post
I really enjoyed reading this, James. I knew a little about Henry Kissinger before reading this but nothing at all about Aileen Wuornos. Now, I feel that I know about their legacies and I also have an opinion on them, as you argument was very convincing.

I liked the concept of parallel universes, because it gives the reader the opportunity to broaden the argument and consider it in a larger context. I also appreciated the juxtaposition between the two subjects’ situations. It highlighted well the issue of how society often chooses to celebrate the middle class male who comes from a powerful and privileged position to start with, and villifies the working class, female who had the odds stacked against her from the offset. They are not two people that you would automatically think of comparing. Yet when you actually do, this contrast becomes strikingly clear and says a great deal about the society from which they both come.

Thanks for posting this. I feel I’ve learned something reading it, without having to work too hard, which is always a bonus.

What sort of publication are you aiming it at?

James Graham at 13:51 on 26 April 2013  Report this post
Hi Jennifer - thanks for your comment. Your summary of the article is encouraging, because I think you have it spot on, which means the surprising comparison of these two people must be convincing enough. And you say ‘I’ve learned something reading it, without having to work too hard’ which is good - it should be well enough presented so that readers don’t have to work too hard to get the point.

I realise I didn’t perhaps make enough of the gender issue. The only reservation I have is that American ‘rough justice’ - especially inadequate defence - affects men too. As for those who abuse power, of course the vast majority are men. The late Lady Thatcher is an exception, perhaps you’ll agree, but other women in power haven’t been like that. Hillary Clinton, for example, has been so much more civilised than someone like Kissinger.

I’m not at all sure where this article might be accepted. There are political magazines, especially in the US, which welcome articles by ‘amateurs’ - In These Times or New Politics - but looking at the websites of both of these I’m still not sure this particular piece would go down well. Must explore further.

Many thanks again for your observations.


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