“But administration officials also worry that taking too hard a line with AIG and other companies could discourage top financial experts and institutions from joining the government efforts to fix the financial system.” — Weisman, Reddy and Pleven, Wall Street Journal

“AIG built this bomb, and it may be the only outfit that really knows how to defuse it.” — Andrew Ross Sorkin, New York Times

So, OK, we’re being held hostage and we have to pay up — give the AIG “brainiacs,” as Sorkin calls them, their unearned, taxpayer-underwritten $165 million in bonuses — or they’ll walk away from the disaster they created and let the whole global financial structure collapse in ruin.

Wow. I whistle in awe at the fiendishness of what can only be called financial terrorism, and as I do so a modest idea pops into my head, in the spirit of Jonathan Swift, of course.

The tale of official powerlessness in the AIG bailout scandal, with unspeakable disaster looming if the feds don’t capitulate, as described by Sorkin and other mainstream financial writers, is precisely the scenario — correct me if I’m wrong here — that is evoked to justify torture. Granted, the terrorists in this case probably don’t wear turbans, but what’s going on here certainly strikes me as a clash of civilizations.

Might this not, in other words, be a profitable direction in which to extend the war on terror? Mr. President, don’t pay the bonuses! Instead, when the guys come to collect their extortion money, we strip them naked, stack them in a heap, release the dogs, attach the electrodes, shove a wet rag down their throats and, for good measure, flush a holy book (“Capitalism and Freedom,” by Milton Friedman, perhaps) down the toilet in the executive bathroom at AIG headquarters. Maybe then they’ll tell us how the credit default swap market works.

I know. It sounds a little extreme. But come on, Charles Grassley, the Republican senator from Iowa, has gone even further, suggesting that the AIG execs might want to take the honorable way out and kill themselves, a la the Japanese example. Compared to public, self-administered disembowelings, my proposal seems reasonable, pragmatic and centrist.

But maybe the American public has lost its enthusiasm for torture, because it doesn’t actually work, and wants no more news — certainly no more lurid photos — of what the CIA and various private contractors are doing in squalid cells in the dark corners of the world.

In that case, I’m prepared to make a counter modest proposal: Pay the AIG brainiacs their bonuses and get them, you know, on our side. But as soon as we do this, let us retool the Gitmo approach to the war on terror and start paying CEO bonuses to our whole gulag of detainees so we can get them on our side as well. The Bush-Cheney war would be history within weeks, at a fraction of what the current approach is costing us, and we could get on with the “yes we can” era we voted for in November and start building a just, sustainable human future.

Now then, let us pause for a moment and allow the sarcasm to settle. The unfolding economic disaster that threatens to swallow us has, at its core, a values void eerily reminiscent of the void at the center of the war on terror.

This war, of course, continues to bleed our economy of hope and promise with a dull persistence that barely merits comment these days — at least not in the failing, dying media that have no intelligent, no moral, context in which to put either crisis. Both are crises of dehumanization and exploitation.

The great moral teachings of humankind, which call us beyond our impulsive, short-term interests, have no place in either the global economy or the war on terror. “The more we strive to amass power and possessions, the more intolerant and anxious we become,” Chris Hedges wrote recently at, on the false god of unfettered capitalism. “When we act in their interests we are rarely acting in our own.”

He goes on: “The moral life, in the end, will not protect us from evil. The moral life protects us, however, from committing evil. It is designed to check our darker impulses, warning us that pandering to impulses can have terrible consequences. It seeks to hold community together. It is community that gives our lives, even in pain and grief, a healing solidarity.”

So let me amend my proposal one more time. Because the community Hedges speaks of is now the global community, let us pledge, as we set about building a sustainable future, to renew our commitment to moral purpose and self-sacrifice without — as too often happened in the past — drawing a circle around “us” and “them”: the enemy. Let us build a world of borderless compassion and prosperity.

Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at © 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.