Jeffrey Epstein died on Saturday exactly as he’d lived -- thinking of nobody else but himself, with the people we trust to protect our society from predators like Epstein looking the other way, and with a lot of very rich and very powerful people breathing an almost audible sigh of relief, convinced that for the umpteenth time they’ve gotten away with all of it.
The first news bulletin around 9 a.m. on an unseasonably crisp August morning that Epstein -- locked up in the federal government’s Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan and finally, we so naively believed, facing justice for a lifetime of sex trafficking and lurid, disgusting abuse of young girls -- had been discovered dead in his cell was in many ways the ultimate 2019 story: completely shocking and yet somehow also numbly unsurprising, in an America spiraling out of control.
In the tumultuous 1960s, it had taken a couple of years for the unfathomable events in Dealey Plaza to create the level of peak conspiracy theory that took only an hour or two to explode Saturday like a mushroom cloud on the over-caffeinated playing field of Twitter, Facebook or wherever else you get your daily dose of paranoia and rage. Few Americans are eager to accept the official version that Epstein -- keeper of dark secrets about the sexual perversions and probable crimes of some very not-fine people on both sides of America’s great political divide, not to mention some of the richest people on the planet -- was able to hang himself in his jail cell despite the earnest, good-faith efforts of federal officials who really, really wanted to keep the reportedly suicidal multimillionaire alive to stand trial.
Honestly, given everything that’s happened in this country in the 56 years since Dallas, can you blame them?
But for our purposes today, let’s accept the high probability that Epstein’s death was indeed a suicide, albeit under murky circumstances. In a sense, it’s a tough thing to write about, because the traditional instinct is to lash out at Epstein as “a coward” who “took the easy way out” (which indeed was the headline in the Miami Herald, whose dogged investigative reporting by my former Philadelphia Daily News colleague and friend Julie K. Brown is what put him in this predicament).
We should be careful how we talk about suicide in a nation that’s experiencing an epidemic, fueled largely by people we love who are overwhelmed by all sorts of mental torment. But let’s also be clear: Jeffrey Epstein is not one of these. The mental pain of his world was ultimately not his own but that which he inflicted on scores of innocent young women. For decades, he’d almost completely managed to escape any real accountability by whatever path of least resistance was left wide open for him -- using his wealth or his roster of powerful friends who, in a few cases, actually liked him but in most cases were more afraid of him. In the predawn darkness of August 10, there was only one avenue left for Epstein to do what he’s always done: evade responsibility for his own actions. Of course he took it.
That’s why the shock over Epstein’s apparent suicide is transient while the anger is raw and persistent. This was Epstein’s final abuse of those he preyed upon: Denying them the chance to look him in the eye and confront him with his crimes against humanity, not to mention their vain hope that America’s flawed system would finally mete out actual justice against a powerful white man.
“We’ve worked so hard to get here, and he stole that from us, too,” Virginia Giuffre, perhaps Epstein’s best-known accuser, with evidence against a raft of other powerful men, told the New York Times. Another survivor, Jena-Lisa Jones, just 14 when she was molested by Epstein, told the Herald’s Brown, her voice cracking: “I just can’t believe it. We were finally feeling that we might have some justice after all these years,"
William Barr, very much “Trump’s Roy Cohn” since President Trump named him attorney general earlier this year, said he was shocked, shocked that Epstein was apparently able to kill himself in a federal Bureau of Prisons facility (the one, it should be pointed out, that was just trusted with the world’s most dangerous prisoner, the drug dealer known as El Chapo) under his control in the Department of Justice. And so he promised a full investigation -- one of many that are certain to occur into the most notorious inmate death since Lee Harvey Oswald. And there’s no doubt that scapegoats -- probably whoever made the insane, frankly, decision to take Epstein off suicide watch, and those who were on duty early Saturday morning -- will be identified and punished.
But that’s not even close to the justice that so many furious people are craving. When, if ever, will there be charges for all the helpers, procurers and hangers-on in Epstein’s network of sleaze -- up to and including his longtime partner Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of the late newspaper baron (and probable spy) Robert Maxwell, publicly accused of pimping for her wealthy, perverted “best friend.” Then there’s the next level -- the U.S. attorney-turned-Cabinet secretary who gave Epstein a cushy deal and has walked away with a pat on the back from President Trump, and the Palm Beach sheriff who turned Epstein’s previous brush with justice into a joke, and all the other compromised folks in our injustice system.
But we all know it goes much, much deeper than that.
Yes, I am talking about two American presidents: Bill Clinton, a close pal said to have flown on Epstein’s private jet with the cringe-worthy nickname -- “The Lolita Express” -- at least two dozen times, and Donald Trump, who partied with Epstein and rooms full of models and cheerleaders and famously acknowledged that Epstein "likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” But I’m also talking about the men named in court documents that were unsealed just hours before Epstein died -- including Britain’s Prince Andrew, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, prominent attorney Alan Dershowitz, and other rich and powerful but slightly less-famous folks.
Yes, most have denied the allegations. I could add ... well, they’ll get their day in court -- but that would be a sick joke. Anyone who’s been a sentient human being these last few decades knows that no matter how fast or slow the wheels of justice turn in the government’s investigation of the Epstein case, the billionaire elites and power brokers whose dollars or political juice greased the wheels for the Lolita Express to take flight will skate harmlessly above the fray, like they always do.
That is why so many Americans are so angry today over one man’s suicide. Yes, it’s infuriating and frustrating that these women can’t get justice, but even worse is the sense that we’ve become a nation where no one can ever be held accountable for their hideous crimes as long as they know people in the right places and have a big enough bank statement. And now the grinning face of the pervert Jeffrey Epstein is laughing at us from the grave for being foolish enough to think otherwise, no matter how briefly.
Because it’s not just Epstein, and it’s not this one case. It’s not even just the horrors that have been exposed in two years of the #MeToo scandals, where abuses by the world’s most powerful men in show business, media, the arts, big business and, yes, politics have been covered up if not openly tolerated for years ... centuries, really. It’s the growing awareness that the current American system has lost the capacity to hold anyone accountable in any position of power or influence.
Not the kleptocrats who’ve engineered the greatest transfer of wealth from the middle class and the poor into their own pockets in the history of humankind, nor all the politicians they had to buy off to make that happen. And not the so-called justice system that operates with brutish efficiency in hollowing out America’s poorest zip codes but flees like a pack of cockroaches every time a light is shined on the criminality so rampant among this nation’s elites. Don’t just think Jeffrey Epstein, and don’t just think Bill Clinton or Donald Trump. Think a lot bigger.
Lost in the hubbub this weekend was the fifth anniversary of the killing of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer. The killing sparked a movement -- Black Lives Matter -- but that still hasn’t brought true accountability for those who allowed Brown’s uncovered body to fester for five hours under a prairie sun, or who led a kangaroo court of a grand jury investigation, or who sicced police dogs or rolled out armored personnel carriers on anyone who dared protest.
You’ve probably noticed this in your hometown. Here in Philadelphia, we’ve seen nine men who gave up years of their lives -- wrongfully convicted of murder -- finally walk out of prison, victims of a Salem-like witch hunt of young black men in the 1990s. None of the folks who sent them away -- not the lying cops or assistant DAs, or “deadliest DA” Lynne Abraham -- has been punished for ruining these lives. No one expects them to. That’s how we roll in the United States of America. No one was held accountable for the collapse of the world economy in 2008, or for the torture regime of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Who’s going to care about some small-time cops?
It’s not getting any better. Raise your hand if you think anyone is going to be held to account for the deplorable, inhumane conditions in the American concentration camps on the southern border, or kids who died in the custody of Border Patrol, or for the Mississippi ICE raid where not one second’s thought was given to the scores of crying, bewildered children who came home from the first day of school to find Mommy and Daddy had been whisked away by the secret police.
And let’s be honest -- the disastrous Trump presidency is a big part of our rage. In a parallel universe to Epstein’s mocking of our criminal-justice system, Trump has been able to laugh at our silly democratic norms and shred the Constitution because he understands -- just like Epstein did -- that no one has the courage or the will to stop him. Not our cowed Congress. Not our “both sides” elite media. And not our so-called system of justice -- the exact same screwed-up folks who shut off the TV monitors (I mean metaphorically, but maybe for real ... who knows?) and let Epstein escape this mortal coil.
I don’t know what secrets about Donald Trump that Jeffrey Epstein took to his grave, and neither do you. But I couldn’t be any less surprised by the fact that Trump and his team are cynically exploiting his death -- to jump on the conspiracy wagon and animate the Fox-fried brains of his base by implying Bill Clinton had something to do with it. It’s both a sick rallying cry and a convenient distraction from his racism, white nationalism and failure of leadership in El Paso and Dayton.
But frankly, conspiracy theories about Epstein’s death needed no push from the Oval Office. Conspiracy theories are the voice of the ungoverned. The road that started in 1963 in Dealey Plaza -- in an ancient time when people had unbridled faith in their leaders and their institutions as a force for good -- finally came to its inevitable terminus, at the end of a rope in a cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. Americans are bitter, confused, and most of all angry. And they have absolutely no faith in the people who are in charge. I know I don’t.