Crime, Justice and the Surviving Belief in Governance
Four major stories offer a picture of two different versions of America
How about this snapshot of a high-volume, high-profile news day: Steve Bannon is expected to surrender today after Friday’s grand jury indictment for criminal contempt; closing arguments are coming in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in the murder trial of Kyle Rittenhouse; President Biden will sign the bipartisan infrastructure bill; and the Congressional Budget Office is scheduled to release several scores of the financial cost of the Build Back Better Act.
Any one of these four news stories illustrates the battles being fought. Taken together, they offer a tragic picture of crime and corruption fueled by arrogance on the one hand, and, on the other, the ongoing commitment to repair a broken America and reestablish an engaged government as a powerful force in the shape of the future.
It’s hard to think of anyone who provides a more vivid example of the notion of criminal contempt than Steve Bannon—anyone besides Donald Trump, who has urged his operatives to stonewall Congress. Despite a subpoena, Bannon refused to cooperate with the House Select Committee investigating January 6 seeking his testimony, and he refused to turn over requested documents, serving up an already court-refuted excuse that he has executive privilege (even though he wasn’t employed by the White House). Contempt of Congress is a misdemeanor offense that carries a maximum punishment of one year in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000.
The two charges against the Trump advisor who said on January 5 that “all hell is going to break loose tomorrow” are the second time he’s been criminally charged in the last 15 months. The 67-year-old Bannon was charged with defrauding donors in the private “We Build the Wall” scam last August, yet never faced trial after Trump issued him a pardon.
It’s hard to see how this right-wing extremist—who sees himself as an anti-democratic revolutionary and expressed his desire in 2016 to “bring everything crashing down”—won’t use this latest spotlight to raise more money for himself and burnish his reputation as a political martyr. Expect him to be all smiles, sneering and defiant, when he emerges from the Washington courtroom this afternoon, likely free on bail to continue his stonewalling and lies about what really happened on January 6.
In a nation drowning in guns with a flood of laws permitting open carry of these weapons, the notion of self-defense can be tragically problematic. That’s only made worse when vigilantism is on the rise. What was a 17-year-old boy doing crossing state lines to Wisconsin with an AR-15 assault rifle that he was not legally able to purchase when a chaotic, violent, night-time protest following a fatal police shooting was underway? How can he legitimately claim that he was there as “a medic” and to “protect” property?
And yet, once there, this self-styled militiaman claimed that he felt his life was in danger, attempting to justify why he killed two men and injured a third that night. Witnesses and visual evidence do depict a bounty of guns and violence and physical aggression, including one of his victims chasing him and acting aggressively. "I didn't want to have to kill anybody,” Rittenhouse said in the final days of testimony. “I was being attacked.”
The effect of the closing statements today may hinge on whether the jury accepts the notion of self-defense—that he was there with his weapon not as an aggressor but rather to defend others. We can expect more of these kinds of cases with the rise of white supremacism, an emboldened attitude about the right to brandish guns in public and radical extremists celebrating a teenager who killed two people.
But even as doubts linger about the success of the Rittenhouse prosecution to make their case of homicide, reckless homicide or even reckless endangerment, the comment of one Wisconsin defense attorney underlines this whole sad tragedy and his decision to go to Kenosha: “There's no rational reason for why a 17-year-old should cross state lines, arm himself with a long gun, lie about being an EMT, then try to play vigilante throughout this incredibly dangerous and chaotic time.”
While 13 GOP House members who voted in support of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill face death threats and attacks as traitors from some of their fellow Republicans, President Biden, Democrats and a host of others will be celebrating its passage today on the South Lawn of the White House. According to the White House, the ceremony will include "a diverse group of leaders who fought for its passage across the country, ranging from governors and mayors of both parties to labor union and business leaders."
Largely written by a bipartisan group of 10 Senate lawmakers, the legislation includes $550 billion of new federal investments in infrastructure over five years, fixing and building everything from bridges and roads to outdated public transit to broadband, water and energy systems. As the impact in new jobs and visible improvements are seen in towns and cities around the country, it will be interesting to see how many of the large majority of Republicans who opposed it will take credit when communicating with their voters.
The infrastructure bill passed before finalizing the larger, roughly $2 trillion Build Back Better social and climate bill after five moderate Democrats gave assurances to progressives that they would vote for it later—with conditions, of course: "We commit to voting for the Build Back Better Act, in its current form other than technical changes, as expeditiously as we receive fiscal information from the Congressional Budget Office -- but in no event later than the week of Nov. 15," the group said.
Whether a vote will happen before Thanksgiving remains unclear, a date that may be delayed by the pace of the Congressional Budget Office’s piecemeal release of scores. But today and in the coming days we should see whether the costs and the measures to pay for them will satisfy the still-intransigent Democrats, including Senators Manchin and Sinema, and accelerate passage through reconciliation.
Yes, governance is often ugly…and frustrating…and infuriating when it reveals the fractures in perspective that fail to recognize and address the real needs of Americans. It’s made worse by a 50-50 Senate split with Republicans who refuse to participate in legislation that can meaningfully improve lives. But at a time when the country is confronted by the arrogance of extremists who relish violence and hunger to destroy democracy, the commitment to governance remains a reason for optimism—indeed, a crucial counterpoint.
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