marking nine months since the assassination of
the anti-corruption investigative journalist
Daphne Caruana Galizia
in a car bomb.
Photo by Darrin Zammit Lupi
is a truly global crisis
and the wealth addiction
that feeds it
is hiding in
In Kandahar, Afghanistan, in late 2001, I watched a girl of about nine strip a Kalashnikov rifle, inspect the bullets and reload the sound ones in a matter of minutes.
That child lived in a mud-brick house in the middle of a graveyard. I lived there, too. I was staying with her family as I covered the fall of the Taliban regime for National Public Radio in the United States.
I thought I'd learn more in the company of ordinary Afghans than in the single hotel in the capital formerly held by the terrorists, where the other Western journalists were.
So I asked a militia
friend to find me a host family.
It has stayed with me ever since...
Here is its significance.
This issue, corruption, was not on my mind at all when I decided to quit journalism and move to Afghanistan.
I was not thinking about it as I set about rebuilding a village that had been reduced to rubble in the US bombing campaign, or setting up the country's first independent radio station.
I was not trying to impose some Western norm.
It was Afghans who brought the problem to me. Young people I asked about what they wanted to hear on the radio complained of shakedowns by the new governor's militiamen - who wore US combat fatigues.
A quarryman told me he couldn't sell stone for the houses I was rebuilding:
Then he crushed it to gravel and sold it at an exorbitant markup to the US military base outside town.
When I learned Pashtu and moved to an unguarded compound in the middle of town, and the Taliban were filtering back into the region, delegations of elders would come calling.
So I started working on corruption:
And we did...!
But the loss of the longest war the US ever fought was hardly the first time corruption has shaped history.
So reads Thesis 27 in a carefully sequenced series of statements that a law student-turned-priest and theology professor named Martin Luther wrote in 1517.
At the time, the Catholic Church, the dominant power in Europe from the edge of Ireland nearly to Moscow, was engaged in a vast extortion racket.
In 1517, a sales push was launched in Germany.
Half the proceeds were earmarked to cover the staggering debt a young cleric had taken on to buy a powerful archbishopric from the pope. A bling-loving scion of the Medici dynasty, that pope routinely auctioned off Church offices and waivers of canon law.
The rest of the return on indulgence sales would go straight to Leo X himself, to help pay for a gaudy piece of real estate.
outraged Indigenous allies
who joined him,
could Cortés have brought down
that great empire...?
Nearly all 95 of those epoch-making premises are taken up with aspects of what we would call corruption:
In this egregious case, the offices in question were sacred and the stakes eternal.
Public indignation burst across Europe in a shockwave that dramatically reshaped the continent's politics, culture and economy. History lurches with such turning points, in which systemic corruption, or the reaction against it, changed the course of world events.
Three years after Luther's propositions went viral, a mixed army of Spaniards and Native Americans laid siege to a metropolis.
In terms of population, and cultural and architectural sophistication, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan rivalled any city in Europe.
Evidence in accounts written both by the commander of that army, Hernán Cortés, and Indigenous scholars, suggests that much of its magnificence derived from the Aztec elite's abuse of public power for personal gain.
So arises a question: without the outraged Indigenous allies who joined him, could Cortés have brought down that great empire?
In Corruption and the Decline of Rome (1988) - to offer a final example - Ramsay MacMullen devotes a chapter to the system that would become Pope Leo X's default 1,000 years later:
Assessing its impact on the fortunes of Rome, MacMullen wonders how it was possible for a rowdy, materially and technologically inferior coalition of untutored tribesmen,
The question mirrors the general astonishment when, last summer, gangs of shaggy-haired fighters mounted on motorcycles overran Afghanistan in a matter of days.
In both cases, a fatal impact of 'power for sale' was the hollowing-out of defense forces.
And the disgruntled, ill-equipped soldiers who remained on the front did not stand and fight.
Just what happened in Afghanistan in August 2021.
For corrupt elites, defense budgets represent an enticing opportunity for pillage. Citizens rarely question investments they think will protect them, and the details of expenditures are usually classified.
A common technique is for officers to pad the payroll with what The Guardian in 2016 identified as 'fake names or dead men', then pocket the excess salaries.
That's how districts end up ill-defended by units of contemptible size.
That's how soldiers run out of ammunition in the middle of a firefight with raggedy foes.
Sums of money, weapons and weatherproof tents can be counted; they help quantify corruption's toll.
But to think only in numbers is to overlook the greater harm and the real danger: the moral injury corruption inflicts.
How are souls deformed
under the obligation to violate
in order to survive...?
Psychic wounds - betrayal and pain and shame - are powerful goads to action, not always considered.
Once, members of the cooperative I set up in 2005 needed to retrieve a piece of equipment from customs.
I was away...
They could not extract the item without offering an 'emolument', as the US constitution calls it. In disgust - partly at themselves - they paid.
The way some react may look like secession.
Soldiers abandon their posts. Voters withhold their ballots. Caravans set forth in an exodus of biblical proportions.
Or a whole people,
The pain of betrayal and disrespect can also spark violent rage or a desire for revenge. And not just in Afghanistan or ancient Rome.
Pick any country that is beset by crisis today:
Now look at the government of the country in question.
Yet the violent reactions corruption often prompts may be the lesser of its evils.
The greater harm may result from the betrayal itself: a natural or human-made disaster that does irreparable harm - like a chemical explosion in an ancient port city, or a region wrecked by a hurricane; a financial implosion brought on by systemic fraud.
Or, let's take the greatest calamity looming over our species today: the ruin of the natural world.
Since just 2018, for a single example, thousands of square miles of Amazon rainforest - the wettest, lushest and most biodiverse region on this lumpy planet - have burned.
To call the Amazon a carbon sink does not begin to encompass the magnitude of this disaster. Think of that place as not just a lung, but as more vital organs of the living Earth than current human knowledge can even identify.
What happens without it?
If a single comet slamming into the Gulf of Mexico exterminated 80 per cent of species, ending the age of the dinosaurs, then it doesn't bear thinking about.
Yet, under the current notoriously corrupt governments of Bolivia and Brazil, the race is on to sack it.
How is it, then, that in the West we pay so little attention to corruption?
We brush it away, as an innate feature of the human condition, or of the culture of certain foreign countries. Or - sometimes and - as a distasteful aberration, a scandal beneath notice.
Writing in 2016 for a unanimous US Supreme Court, chief justice John Roberts voiced that disregard.
Within weeks of that ruling, two very different mavericks blasted US presidential politics apart.
Corruption, in other words, unmoored the US political system, with the ultimate consequences still unknown.
Yet, here and in other Western countries, it is easier to ignore than it is in Afghanistan. Here in the US, citizens are not regularly shaken down in the street.
Corruption is cloaked in legal abracadabras...
The safe is cracked with velvet gloves.
A handful of US defense industry giants, for example, all with long rap sheets, garner the vast bulk of Pentagon procurement and service contracts.
Those contractors peddle armored vehicles packed with delicate electronics. They sell defective weapons systems.
They submit budgets whose line-items are inflated or even left blank:
US soldiers don't go hungry. But the wars are lost just the same.
In the US today,
such comments imply,
bribery is just the way
things get done...
The perpetrators of this brand of war profiteering wear business suits and enjoy respect. They have embroidered an elaborate fabric of connections with government officials who decide on the size of the defense budget and the uses to which the money will be put.
These connections are not just purchased via campaign contributions. Personnel shuttle back and forth between private industry and the Pentagon, to weave a dynamic and powerful network.
Its objectives routinely trump the public interest.
Now consider how we, the victims - at least in the comfortable classes - often react.
Instead of objecting and demanding that such practices cease, we are tempted to explain them away. The pose can seem deliciously counterculture, a sign of realism.
When I interviewed Washington lawyers and veteran court-watchers about the unanimous reversal of McDonnell's corruption conviction, I got such rationalizations.
In the US today, such comments imply, bribery is just the way things get done.
Often, we gloss over the phenomenon altogether. We devise purely metaphysical understandings of Luther's revolt, or of the violent act committed 1,500 years before that by a young rabbi from Nazareth.
Surrounded by a rabble of his neighbors, he strode into the august government complex where the corrupt ruling elite of his day stole people's money.
And Jesus started throwing the furniture around.
With these questions in mind - and begging Martin Luther's indulgence - I offer up the following propositions for dispute: