‘Do as I say, not as I do’: Virus exposes two standards of justice
Amid the great political divide that seems to have gotten drawn during the coronavirus pandemic and the response to it, there’s an awakening of sorts. In some cases, it separates right from left. But sometimes, it’s where left meets right. It has to do with liberty and double standards.
Not since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has our society been so severely tested in terms of how far we believe our government must go, can go, should go, or dares to go when it comes to controlling us for “our own good.”
A persistent problem is the public’s recognition that, as the government takes action, it is neither omniscient nor always benevolent. It doesn’t always know what’s best. Yet, it seizes the authority to command us, to act upon its beliefs and misconceptions alike, and to impose solutions and controls, whether right or wrong.
All of this is neatly encapsulated in the outrageous case of the Texas hair salon owner sentenced to a week behind bars and a $7,000 fine for doing something that was considered an inalienable right just a few short months ago: operating her hair salon business. I’m old enough to remember when working hard, feeding your family and employing others was aspirational. But in the age of coronavirus and the government’s wisdom, doing so can be made into a serious crime.
Apparently more serious than the acts committed by thousands who have been released from prisons and jails because of coronavirus fears — including a man accused of killing a girl in a hit-and-run, thieves, people convicted of assault and sexual crimes, a man who allegedly set his girlfriend’s door on fire and choked her mother, and a prisoner accused of assaulting a homeless services officer.
Jail is considered too harmful to these people; they are considered safe to roam the streets. But Dallas Judge Eric Moyé sentenced salon owner Shelley Luther to a week in jail — where she would be at elevated risk of contracting the coronavirus — because she refused to apologize for being “selfish,” in his words, by operating her salon in violation of a state order. Luther insists it’s not selfish to feed her children and to make sure her employees are not going hungry.
We all know her punishment is not really about selfishness or safety. It’s about her defiance. Her brazen failure to adhere. Her civil disobedience.
As word of Luther’s case and others like it makes the rounds on the news and social media, it begs further comparisons. A small business owner is thrown in the clink in a matter of days, while government officials who got caught betraying the public trust, abusing their authority, and engaging in corrupt acts go unpunished, year after year. Criminal referrals over really big things are turned away or ignored when the alleged offenders are certain important or connected people.
The Department of Justice’s inspector general refers former FBI Director James Comey for possible criminal prosecution for leaking memos and mishandling classified information in an effort to harm President Trump. What’s the outcome? The Justice Department declines to prosecute because Comey didn’t mean to violate the law.
An FBI attorney allegedly doctors a document to get improper wiretap against an innocent U.S. citizen. What’s the outcome? Four years later, and six months after the alleged corruption was revealed by the inspector general: crickets.
Former Trump national security adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn allegedly lies to FBI agents, and the book gets thrown at him. But a supervisor on his case, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, gets caught lying to FBI agents about a leak and escapes prosecution. Not only that, documents kept hidden for more than three years indicate FBI agents conspired to set up Flynn in advance, and prosecutors allegedly threatened to go after Flynn’s son if Flynn didn’t plead guilty.
The FBI erases crucial text messages amid investigations about agents’ misbehavior and it’s quickly chalked up to a glitch. The FBI claims it cannot recover the messages but, somehow, the inspector general does recover them. Still: it’s an honest mistake.
Important phone records that could expose FBI misconduct are deleted by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, but it’s dismissed as a technical glitch. More FBI misconduct is flagged regarding multiple wiretaps of U.S. citizens — but the official reaction seems to be “So what?”
Likewise, with the coronavirus lockdown come stories of political figures restricting the public while sneaking out and defying their own rules to walk in the park, to get a haircut, or to visit a mistress. They’re laying down the hammer on the rest of us while exempting themselves. It’s all part of the same pathology.
And our court system, which surely was once envisioned as the great equalizer in America between the powerful and the powerless, is too often what the Texas salon owner discovered: a place where common sense and proportionality are tossed aside. Where the law is used in a power play to slap down those gone awry of the influential. Some courts, it seems, serve to punish us and bleed us dry of our resources for having dared to challenge the status quo or authority.
To many Americans, some of the government responses to coronavirus are proving their worst fears about what our society and republic have become: a place where there are two systems of justice.
Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy-winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times best-sellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program, “Full Measure.”