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Moral Immunity

New York media have been absorbed by two stories this past week: Governor Chris Christie's mea culpa on Thursday, and the departure (also on Thursday) of Indian consular official, Devyani Khobragade, after indictment by the U.S. attorney for violating federal and state laws.

The humiliated, unknowing, and flabbergasted govenor apologized for the GWBridge lane closings that snarled Fort Lee, NJ, traffic for four days in September. His staff and various political operative were getting even, apparently, with the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for failing to endorse Christie's reelection in November. Christie says he knew nothing about it.

Consular official Khobragade, behaving as she might in India, was arrested and indicted by the U.S. Attorney for lying on a visa application for Sangeeta Richard whom she hired as a housekeeper and for violating New York labor laws. The scandal was brought to a conclusion by Ms. Khobragade's departure from the U.S. On leaving she said to the U.S. State Department official accompanying her: "You have lost a good friend. It is unfortunate. In return, you got a maid and a drunken driver. They are in, and we are out.” Actually only Ms. Khobragade is out; her husband and children remain in New York. Times story.

Does political immunity, which Christie has enjoyed, or diplomatic immunity, which Khobragade claims, bestow moral immunity? It seems so.

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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I think Christie's political immunity is far from over. Firing one woman is hardly solving the problem. Clearly, there was an entire culture of payback, misuse of services to punish opponents that is far, wide, and deep and extends far beyond this one woman.

What caught my eye immediately was the e-mail that triggered the whole thing. "Time for some traffic problems". Obviously the recipient knew exactly what that meant without any further prompting. And other leaders knew as well. I mean she did not even write "Time for some traffic problems ;)". It is like a gigantic clandestine affair, complete with code words, and signals.

And Rush Limbaugh of all people actually had an insightful observation. Christie, in the press conference said, I have not been able to sleep the last two nights" but in response to a specific question he said that he first heard the previous morning, and he even specified the time 8:5- or 8:55 after his workout. So that accounts for why he could not sleep ONE night. Why couldn't he sleep the previous night? Oh, and he looked pretty well rested to me.

George's conclusion: he's lying.

On the Khobragade case; diplomatic immunity shouldn't bestow moral immunity.  But strip-searching her went way too far, and was probably the thing that escalated this into an international incident. And one has to ask, would it have happened to a man, for a similar offense?

Peggy -- Christie was "humiliated", yes.  "Unkowing" and "flabbergasted"?  Come on.  It's no secret that Christie's entire career has been characterized by thuggishness.  

As for motive, Rachel Maddow proposed a much more plausible explanation for what happened than payback for an endorsement that Christie never should have expected.  Charles Pierce at Esquire glosses it well:


Correction -- that should have read "payback for not offering an endorsement."  My bad.

 Would a man have been strip-searched for abusing a servant?  The Supreme Court allows if for all offenders being admitted to jail.

Interesting the sympathy for Devyani compared to the lack of sympathy for her victim.  In the NYT story this morning, an Indian woman is quoted:

 “What kind of checking are they doing, strip-checking?” she said. “She is a diplomatic person and you strip her and check her because the maid says she was ill-treated? It’s ridiculous. It’s not that she had employed an American servant. This was an Indian servant.”


And that makes it okay?  (I like the expression on Devyani's face in the picture with her father.)

The Decca Chronicle says "she was held with common criminals."  


Gerelyn, no, what she did isn't okay, and yes, I do sympathize with the servant. However, regarding the strip search thing; the Supreme Court allows it, but my understanding is it isn't required. Especially for this type of thing. It could have been handled better. India comes under a lot of (justified) criticism for the way women are sometimes treated there, and for human rights abuses in their justice system.  If the U.S. wants to preach about that, we need to set a better example.

Well, I'm not sure what you mean by "this type of thing."  Visa fraud?  Surely that should rank high on the list of crimes our law enforcement officials should be vigilant about.  Terrorists get into our country and stay here with fraudulent visas.

As to Sangeeta Richard?  She's just one more victim of the human trafficking that "diplomats" routinely indulge in.  

But authorities allege that Khobragade drew up two contracts — one with the proper amount and one with the actual amount paid (about $3.31 an hour for a 40-hour workweek, a wage that would often amount to much less because of longer hours worked).

I'm disgusted by John Kerry's expressing regret over this "incident."  I agree that "we need to set a better example."  The Secretary of State should have done that by denouncing the grotesque sympathy shown this criminal.  He should have denounced India's anti-woman culture and ranted and raved about the 8000 women who are burned to death each year in India in dowry disputes.

On strip searching: The stories in the Times said, that in New York City all arrestees are strip searched before being jailed. I have assumed this is to do with drug trafficking in the jails. The story says she was strip searched by a woman corrections official. Certainly it seems imprudent given the reactions in India (where I have read that a video of the "incident" is circulating with a woman beseiged by male officers). But perhaps Mayor de Blasio will take satisfaction in the practice that treats all arrestees equally.

I can't quite get over her parting statement. You are loosing me, who is a wonderful person, and getting a pile of trash! Also not very diplomatic.

Gene McC: Someday I will write a post about IQ--"irony quotient," as in "unknowing" and "flabbergasted."

Claiming to have been "unknowing" is trying to sell his constituents the Brooklyn Bridge after his GW Bridge fiasco.


At one point in the Christie interview I was struck by the momentary but intense fury in his face.  It made me wonder if he's one of those world class charmers who also are world class manipulators, but underneath is a psychopath.

Anderson Cooper did a little report on psychopathy this very week.  The psychiatrist on it said that psychopathy is not an either-or thing, it's a matter of degree, and everyon is a psychopath to at least some degree.  Cooper's blog has an article on it at

anderson  (You can even take a little test there to see how psychopathetic you are.)

And you can find the profile of a psychopath at Wikipedia, Psychopathic Personality Index.

Traits that seem to fit Christie are:


I: Fearless dominance. Involving social influence, fearlessness, stress immunity.

II: Impulsive antisociality/selfishness. Involving 'Machiavellian' egocentricity, Rebellious nonconformity, Blame externalization, Carefree lack of planning.

III: Coldheartedness.

The first trait listed certainly seems to fit Christie -- the fearless dominance.  He also had a two-hour press conference which would seem to show a high tollerance of strerss.  He's blamng his employees, and it does look coldhearted to leave them alone out in the political if not criminal cold. 

These traits can be positive if used well, but they also have terrible donwsides at times, for instance, substance abuse (check out Christies weight).  Failure to accept responsibility for one's actions is another biggie in some psychopaths.

Not that Christie is the only politician who would seem to have a high score in the trait.  One can think of some others.  Maybe politics by its nature attracts people with high scores.

Each, Christie and Khobragade, had some responsibility for what has happened. Neither seems willing to acknowledge that (apart from whether they are "guilty" as charged) they have direct responsibility for what has happened.

He hired the miscreants and apparently fostered a style in his office that dealt out retribution to people who crossed him.

She brought a woman to the U.S., and treated her badly as well as illegally and seems oblivious to her responsibility to the woman and for her role in fostering good relations between the U.S. and India.

I can't quite get over her parting statement. You are loosing me, who is a wonderful person, and getting a pile of trash! Also not very diplomatic.


Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both employed a famous thug.  A couple of years ago he was elected mayor of Chicago.  Bridgegate means little or nothing to anyone who doesn't have to cross that bridge, and Christie may ultimately benefit should be decide to run for president, as political operators across the country have now been warned that it's risky to cross this man.


Yes, retribution was/is not unknown in Chicago. BUT, it would be taken out directly on the miscreant pol, not the voters! But this is Jersey.

But you may be right; he could be the Republican candidate. If not, it will be a Jeb Bush/Hillary Clinton contest.

MO'BS, C'mon. "This is Jersey."? And New York is Athens. And I am Marie of Romania.

The Rs would be lucky to get Bush or Christie the way they have been behaving.

The comparison was to Chicago, my native city, where retribution is done properly.

Chicago is my native city, too. (Well, Evanston.) I was defending the Garden State where I spent nine enjoyable years.

Retribution: One of the great acts of civic retribution has always seemd to me to be Daley the Younger digging up Mieg's Field (airport) on the Lake Front. But I have forgotten with whom he was getting even. Anyone remember?

Let’s assume, if only for the sake of argument, that Christie didn’t know ahead of time about the decision to close the lanes -- or didn’t order it himself.  Still, doesn’t it make sense to say that the first thing he would have done when the controversy broke out -- i.e. on the first day of the lane closings -- was call in his top staff members and say, “What the hell is going on here?”  And given everything we’ve read about Christie and how he operates, can we really believe that those staff members would have refused to answer his question or lied to him about it?  In other words, isn’t it very likely that he knew from the beginning (if not ahead of time) what he claims he’s only found out about now?

And then there’s this, from a comment on George Vecsey’s blog:

You recall the sign on Harry Truman's desk: "The buck stops here."  Having served as staff on the Hill and "downtown,” there is one cardinal rule:  you do not act outside your "principal's" wishes and goals. The people involved knew Christie for years, what he wanted and what his codes of behavior would allow. This is the way it works at every level of government and in the private sector. People don't last on staff for five years or one year without understanding the rules.


You might enjoy the book. The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Teach us about success written by psychologist, Kevin Dutton:

Dutton argues that there are indeed “functional psychopaths” among us—different from their murderous counterparts—who use their detached, unflinching, and charismatic personalities to succeed in mainstream society, and that shockingly, in some fields, the more “psychopathic” people are, the more likely they are to succeed. Dutton deconstructs this often misunderstood diagnosis through bold on-the-ground reporting and original scientific research as he mingles with the criminally insane in a high-security ward, shares a drink with one of the world’s most successful con artists, and undergoes transcranial magnetic stimulation to discover firsthand exactly how it feels to see through the eyes of a psychopath.

As Dutton develops his theory that we all possess psychopathic tendencies, he puts forward the argument that society as a whole is more psychopathic than ever: after all, psychopaths tend to be fearless, confident, charming, ruthless, and focused—qualities that are tailor-made for success in the twenty-first century. Provocative at every turn, The Wisdom of Psychopaths is a riveting adventure that reveals that it’s our much-maligned dark side that often conceals the trump cards of success.

Christie is so finished. He knew. No doubt. As far as perception? If he knew then he is guilty. If he didn't then he cannot govern. Finished. There is enough political ad material to last forever. 

As far as the Indian ambassador, India has a very strong Caste system. The upper middle are terrible snobs. Shame on India for having half of the world's slaves. They should be exposed more often. 

Ms. Khobragade is a member of a lower caste, and I assume that her sense of entitlement to servants is a reflection of her perception of how higher caste people live.  She wanted all the attributes of full membership, apparently.  At any rate, if she had gone to Tiffany's and pilfered jewelrey, no one would think to defend her by looking at the cost of comparable items in India or whining about how all upper class Indian women must have beautiful jewelry, and if they can't afford the prices in the U.S., well of course, they must resort to cunning and subterfuge.  Everyone would know it for what it is, which is stealing.  She stole from her servant, pure and simple.  Body cavity searches are par for the course for arrests.  They shouldn't be, I agree, but there you are -- if you weren't offended previously I don't see why you should get started now over her.  She's just another person who thinks of criminality in class terms, instead of as actions that comprise the elements of what is laid out in a statute.  

Christie knows full well what it means to commit a crime.  You could hear it firsthand with the careful phrasing of his press conference, in spite of its over the top self-pity,  He only SAW the e-mails for the first time -- I noted that careful construction -- and he was upset that he had been LIED to, but he never said what the lying consisted of -- like "Are you sure there aren't any incriminating e-mails out there?" wherein, Ms. Kelly LIED and said, "No, Governor there are no incriminating e-mails."

So my assumption at this point is that he guessed well enough what happened but thought he could bluster and joke his way through without any real details emerging as the subpoena clock ran down.  Remember, his reaction wasn't "I'm going to make sure something like this never happens again," it was, "I was the guy who put the cones in place. Ha ha!"  The fact that he demanded that Cuomo cease investigating the incident raises a fair inference that he had sufficient knowledge to know at least approximately what an investigation would show. 

But what really shocks me is that there are at least three or more individuals in his close circle who were aware of the plan to drown Fort Lee in traffic and not a single one among them said, "Are you kidding me?  We can't do that!"  Or even just, "That won't work out the way you think it will."  Not one.  So while this might not have been Christie's idea, he considered among his closests associates people who exhibited an utter lack of perspective, gross indifference to public welfare (and that's being charitable considering their evident glee at tying up traffic) and on a scale of 1-10, a moral compass with a negative value. These people shouldn't be in charge of anything.

Barbara's analogy of stealing from household workers to stealing from Tiffany's is clarifying. In many ways, we have become accustomed to seeing wages as something people must win, rather than something they justly earn and deserve through labor, sometimes hard labor. We might even go on to argue that stealing from someone weaker than ourselves is worse than stealing from Tiffany's because it is harder for them to garner support from the law and the surrounding society.

There is a lot of speculation about how the "Khobragade" scandal got out of hand. One item referred to the Times' stories is the role of a victims service agency, Safe Horizon, from which Ms. Richard sought help when she left her employer. There must be many such cases of exploitation that never make the front pages. In this case, I wonder if the agency decided to press ahead and force the issue with the U.S. Attorney Preet Bhara and also made the case public in a way the media could not ignore. I don't know this, but it seems more probable than the various conspiracy theories running loose.

Prarie Home Companion just did a fine little satire on Christie's Deputy Chief passing the buck... seems like an intern escaping into Siberia is to blame....


Among the many things I don't understand in this and I think will ultimately implicate Christie in a Henry II and Becket scenario ("Who will make some trouble for that meddlseome mayor?") is the apparent lack of interst from the NY side. Why wasn't someone in Bloomberg's office raising holy hell about the back-ups?

David, who do you think reversed the decision?  It was one of the New York appointees, who began trying to get to the bottom of it immediately once he realized what had happened. 

David: the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is a combined State Agency. New York City and its mayor have nothing to say about it unless the governor intervenes at their behest. That's why Laguardia and Kennedy Airports located in New York City are very much in need of rethinking and repairs. Imagine a bicycle rental post at LaGuardia!

In the current imbroglio I think Governor Cuomo of New York has started an investigation (which Govenor Christie has asked him to call off!).

Here is the NYTimes rundown of previous and similar cases of diplomats abusing the hired help.


You wrote,

My assumption at this point is that he guessed well enough what happened

Just curious:  why do you think he only guessed?  I think it’s inconceivable that he didn’t know.  How would he have known?  If not by having ordered the lane closings himself in the first place, then by what he would have learned when he spoke to his staff – as he must have done, right? – after all hell broke loose on the first day.

I also find it inconceivable – Christie being Christie – that his staff, when questioned by him, would have dared to keep  the truth from him.   That's why I conclude that surely he knew the true story.

I just don’t see how we can let him off with a “maybe he didn’t know, but he probably guessed” what had happened. 

Your thoughts?

Gene, my assumption is that at a minimum he knew enough to know he didn't want to know the ugly details -- it's hard for me to speculate what form that knowledge took, how early, etc.  The fact that he worked hard to impede an investigation and made it clear by his blustering that he had no intention of getting to the bottom of it in a real way suggests he knew quite a bit.  The definitive statements made during his press conference were clearly orchestrated to allow him to claim that he did not lie during the conference.  As I said above, "Bridget lied to me" could suggest that she lied about her involvement or she lied about the evidence of her involvment.  Two very different kinds of lies, with two very different inferences regarding Chrstie's own culpability.  Those e-mails clearly show that they were the culmination of prior communications, most likely in person or on the phone, between Kelly and Wildstein and it is unthinkable to me that Wildstein would do what he did based solely on instructions from Kelly.  Learing how to bruise without leaving fingerprints is a fine art and Christie has mastered it pretty well. 

Thanks, Barbara.


Thanks, Barbara, for the that part of the history that I didn't know. I haven't read all the details of how it was discovered and reversed.

Margaret, thanks for the clarification re: the bridge too far as a State issue.

So, I guess i'll have to read the details to see who comlained and knew what when from NYC or State side.

In any or all scenarios, it seems absurd to think that Christie didn't know something during or immediately after its cessation and stonewalled after that. 

No excuses for Khobrogade. But just to bring some perspective about the Indian reaction.

Barabara compared Khobrogade's behaviour to stealing. But in India it is hardly likely to be seen that way. $500 a month, about Rs.30000 in Indian currency, (which is what the maid seems to have been actually paid ) is very good money by Indian standards, about 3 times what a maid would earn in India. (When I retired as Senior Vice President from India's biggest bank, in 2004, my monthly salary was about Rs.25000). The other thing is that in most such cases, there is some oral undesratanding between the maid and the employer as to what she actually would be paid notwithstanding any written agreement. So in India while people would agree that Khobrogade broke the law, they would see it more like tax evasion than a criminal act. Hence the outrage. Even the way she was arrested , on the street just after she dropped off her daughter to school seemed unnecessarily aggressive. She was after all a diplomat, in no danger of fleeing the country or anything (at that time, at least). Plus there was the fact that there was already a court order in India in a case between the two which the U S authorities appeared not to have taken cognizance of whereas the Indian authorities feel that in terms existing mutual arrangements they should have done so. I am not sure if that is the correct position. 

Personally I feel convinced that Khobrogade is guilty as charged and really don't understand how she is able to protest her innocence. But I do feel the treatment meted out to her went a little over the top. And how such a matter could have escalated into such a row is hard to understand [With all my 3 children married and settled in the U.S, India - U.S relations are important to me :-)] 

Thank you. You put your finger on a critical and so far mysterious element. How did this case escalate to the point where India-U.S. relations have deteriorated so rapidly. Perhaps we will find out as more of the principals tell their side of the story.

Here in the U.S., there is the different "etiquette" of the State Department and the U.S. Attorney's office. Though they are both federal bodies, they operate under very different sets of rules and even cultural understandings. The decisions of each body seem to have gone in very opposite directions. The U.S. Attorney is himself of Indian ancestry so various theories have circulated about his motives in pressing the case. And, of course, the State Dept. must concern itself with the treatment of its own diplomats abroad.

From the Indian perspective, there seems to be a strong reaction to police practices, including her arrest and incarceration, practices which the U.S. public seems to take for granted, perhaps because most of us are not subject to them. The story I posted in my comment above with reactions from friends and media at the Delhi airport also underline the view that the U.S. is a bully, plain and simple; though the example given--the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan--was as I recall supported by the Indian government. Her father too has played an active role, according to this story, of rallying support, as what father would not.

So there we have it: many unanswered questions.

Soundbite for '16: if this happened with cones, imagine what could happen with drones.

It rhymes! I can see it now on billboards.

Soundbite for '16: if this happened with cones, imagine what could happen with drones.

Make no bones - he has the stones.  But does he have a White House jones?  What are his views on student loans?   What does he say when Israel phones?  Will he get the Indie vote?  Will he get them on a boat?  Will he get them with a goat?  Hispanics like them here and there.  Women don't like him anywhere.



Maybe. Christie seems to eat a lot--of green eggs and ham.

Sunil, surely it must occur to people in India that many things are more expensive in the U.S. -- from things as small as manicures, haircuts and spa services, to things as large as private school tuition, rent, and so on, and lower costs in India would not have been a defense to Ms. Khobragade refusing, for instance, to pay her landlord and then complaining about eviction.  What makes paying a nanny different?  Why is it in any way surprising that Ms. Khobragade might be expected to pay more for the services of a nanny?

All this tells me is that the U.S. should add India to the list of countries that it will henceforth refuse to approve these sorts of household employment related visas, just as it has already done for most Middle Eastern countries because of the level of trafficking and abuse.  But really, this woman must be exceptionally stupid.  When my trafficking client escaped her Middle Eastern employer and formally requested the return of her passport, he complied immediately.  He understood that the jig was up and that the best thing for him was to not make the situation worse by providing even more evidence of his employment violations.  Indeed, because he cooperated with her, she never made an issue for him. 

Ms. Steinfels - if memory serves, Daley had wanted to close and eliminate Meigs Field for years - it interfered with his plans for downtown Chicago, Soldier Field, museums, etc. and to make the lakefront the pre-imenent downtown in the nation.

He actually did a handshake with governor to approve expansion of O'Hare (state funding in exchange to keep Miegs until 2024. Thus, mayor, unions, developers vs. corporate rich (who did not like him anyway). After handshake, 1AM bulldozers.  Avoided decades of lawsuit delays.  Gov Ryan later imprisoned  (that says something about what the mayor fought against 

Paid about $1.5 mil fine - had Bush support- FAA did nothing. O'Hare was expanded at state cost.  He won re-election.  Now seen as a brilliant decision.

His man in charge went to work for next governor, Blagoveich - both arrested same day.

Well!!! Thank you for the details... 

All's well that ends well--sort off! Blagoveich and Co. arrested for something else as I recall.

Barabara, I agree with you.

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