Donald Trump
Credit: The White House/Flickr

Murder took place as the airplane was lifting off the runway, a lethal shot taken in the Humphrey Bogart movie, “Casablanca.” Rick Blaine pulled the trigger in front of the French police prefect Captain Renault. The Vichy official witnessed it. He allowed it. And then Renault uttered those infamous words that said everything, but meant nothing: “Round up the usual suspects.”

Murder also took place just as the airplane was taking off last month from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. Missiles were fired at the Ukraine International Airlines plane, killing all 176 passengers and crew on board. Iranian officials witnessed it. They may even have ordered it. The government then made a predictable and cowardly move by rounding up the usual suspects.

Iran’s government is the latest authority preparing a show trial intended to bring peace to the streets and some justice to the murdered victims of Ukraine flight PS 752. Street protests were launched in Tehran shortly after the commercial Boeing 737 was felled from the sky by a land-based missile. Iranian authorities eventually suggested that errant, on-edge operators brought down the jet at a moment of high tension and an anticipated American attack. The shooters will go to jail. Or worse.

The real guilty parties, however, remain in power and escape both arrest or conviction. They inhabit the high offices and low politics of a theocratic regime. The Islamic Republic holds that the Supreme Leader can do no wrong. Its high-ranking military officers operate in an accountability-free chain of command.

The fall guys carry out policy, follow orders or, frightened, mistakenly launch missiles. The result is dead innocents and a global call for justice that likely will result in unjust outcomes. President Hassan Rouhani and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will not be held accountable. Iranian officials knew the truth for three days, but pretended they had no idea.

On the other side of the Persian Gulf, in Saudi Arabia, five men have been sentenced to death for the murder and dismemberment of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Pinning the death on these five is the kingdom’s response to an international call for justice. U.S. intelligence agencies blame the death on one man and his orders. Since the man the CIA fingered is the sovereign who exists above the law, Saudi officials instead arrested and convicted individuals who carried out the gruesome deed, not those who ordered it. The authorities went after the usual suspects.

In nearly every country, the usual suspects are the functionaries, intermediaries, fall guys, and fools who are like the moths that get too close to a flame and get burned.

Michael Cohen is sitting in jail while his boss sits prettily in the Oval Office. He turned on his master, but his credibility was shot. Cohen likely is serving his time in remorse, trying to salvage his self-respect and dignity. But his illegal acts weakened our democratic system and perverted our judicial system. He is one of America’s usual suspects, along with Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and a host of others.

The big guy gets acquitted.

Even prison has its own code of justice and pecking order. The convicted sex felon and fraudster, Jeffrey Epstein, was found strung up and dead in an unmonitored jail cell, taking with him his keen memory and his ken of contacts. Asphyxiated and alone, Epstein’s suspicious death reeks of supreme negligence and potential foul play. His countless, once-teenage female victims stumble along scarred in life while their famous johns strut scot-free along the streets of London, New York and Miami, and on private Caribbean islands.

Who gets caught? The usual suspects. A couple of prison guards with seemingly no motivation to see Epstein die. They were asleep or checking the internet while Epstein sipped his last breaths. No one truly powerful will suffer the consequences or be held accountable for this screw-up.

The usual suspects are a bunch of losers in every sense of the word. Sometimes they come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and their only shot at escaping their conditions is to grab onto famous coattails. Others are just dimwitted and susceptible to the perks of power and privilege, behaving as sycophants have through the ages and jumping as high as they’re told.

The usual suspects are everywhere, from America to Zimbabwe, and they will inevitably be charged, found guilty and imprisoned. The louder ones will be silenced. At a time when societies are questioning their systems of justice and law enforcement, when body cams and social media are amplifying questionable practices that have gone on for generations, a call to change the status quo is inevitable.

Iran arrested the bystander who took video of the missile downing the passenger jet. Arresting the messenger is always a bad sign. All the while, the powerful and privileged loudly hum the catchy tune of injustice while regularly asking their minions to learn the melody and to, “Play it. Play it again.”

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).