Jonathan Leaf Talks With Ron Kuby

06.14.2004 | Jonathan Leaf | Interviews & First Person | 16 Comments

“Sheikh Omar [Abdel Rahman] would have tried, I think, to prevent the World Trade Center bombing had he known it was coming.”

I was speaking with Ron Kuby, former law partner of radical attorney William Kunstler, a year before September 11th.  Kuby was explaining his reasons for representing Islamic fundamentalists then being tried by the U.S. government for their involvement in the first plot to destroy the World Trade Center. 
I nodded as Kuby told me this.  He appeared to think in saying this that he’d disposed of the topic — as one supposes America also thought it had.

Was it possible that Kuby’s work in Rahman’s defense was motivated by Jewish self-hatred?

My query did not bother or surprise Kuby. Indeed, he smiled warmly at the question, before leaning back, in appreciation of it, and bobbing slightly in his chair to indicate an effort to reflect upon it.

We were seated opposite one another, diagonally flanking the not all that cluttered desk in his poorly lit, somewhat gray office.

No more than pursing his lips a bit and fixing his glasses, he insisted that he wasn’t self-hating, adding in his own defense: “Not only am I not, but I think people who say that are missing something about Judaism.  A lot of what the government has done in the case is wrong, and you see I think that working with an equal legal system is a fundamentally Jewish tenet.”

And, besides which, weren’t there more important, more pressing things for us to talk about?, his expression seemed to say.

The logic seemed to me reasonable then.  So I took the cue, and asked him why, as a revolutionary Marxist, he had chosen to represent mobsters.

Being accused of Jewish self-hatred was not something which put him in the least off-stride.  But the suggestion that he was a mob lawyer bothered him, and a bright color came into his face.  It was evident that he was still smarting about an editorial that had run some months before in The New York Post regarding his work on behalf of “wiseguys”. 

“I never represented anyone like [Genovese crime family head] Vincent Gigante,” Kuby angrily said, shaking his head.  “I represented Steve Sergio.  The guy was a coat checker — a coat checker - at [the mob-controlled strip club] Scores.  And, yes, I did represent [accused mobster] Ray Glynn and The Hells Angels.  But Glynn was never even indicted, and the Hells Angels are a motorcycle gang.

“Really, [Editorial Page Editor John] Podhoretz should be ashamed of himself…I’ve taken on a number of people who are accused mobsters as clients, but cases with organized crime connections are maybe 5% of what I spend my time on.

“Who’s killed more people: John Gotti or the Ford Motor company with their exploding Pintos?  Cost-benefit analysis is the basis in both cases — or for any other giant corporation,” Kuby said.

“What happened with the Pinto wasn’t anomalous.  That’s how business decisions are made all the time…every day with big companies there’s ruthlessness, soullessness, the viewing of human life as a commodity.  Mobsters [by contrast] generally don’t kill people who are not ‘civilians’”.
To Kuby in 2000 it was clear: big business represented the real threat to New Yorkers’ lives.

Continued here.

Every accused deserves representation, whether mobster, terrorist prosecuted under criminal statutes, or white-collar. Ron Kuby appears to represent all of the above and many more.

Corporations do in fact act ruthlessly. Mr. Kuby suggested, during an era of great peace, that the danger of preventable death is greater from legal sources than illegal.

That was almost certainly true then. Still is.

To isolate but one tiny factoid: MOST fire deaths in the US start from cigarettes, which are generally treated not to go out when, for instance, the smoker has fallen asleep! Most of us are in more danger from a random smoker's fire than of getting rubbed out by the mob. That doesn't count the myriad other ways corporate malfeasance might kill any of us.

Such malfeasance doesn't excuse the mob, but it does take some of the polish off of being a "corporate lawyer" as opposed to a "mob lawyer" (which Kuby denies anyway).

Kuby's job is to convince a court his client should benefit from a close look at the facts and the law. He does so for many of those least likely to find able representation. He also has to pay his bills.

What exactly about Kuby is being sneered at in this piece's last sentence? That he didn't say that terror is our chief threat?

Allow me, please, to speak the unspeakable truth: Even in retrospect, under 3000 dead in a metropolitan area of
far over 10 million was only a "gravest threat" in terms of suddenness, shock, physical destructiveness, and effect on our collective psyche. Terror may well become our greatest danger, but it isn't so yet. Average those 2700 murders out over the last ten years, then fold them in with NYC's murder rate (even excluding mob hits!), and a statistician would have a hard time even noticing the blip.

Look at how many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of New Yorkers died of hospital error in 2001 (an increasingly corporately dominated field), and 9/11 can look diminished as well.

That's not to say 9/11 wasn't catastrophic; of course it was!! But this playing with stats can remind us that US society is horrifyingly dangerous on many levels.

In other words, even after 2001, Mr. Kuby's points look valid from here.
06.14.2004 | David L Steinhardt
The LOW rates of over-all mortality that we have in the United Staes reflect our affluence. Our affleunce is a function of our free enterprise system.
In Bangladesh a hurricane can mean 100,000 dead. Obviously, that isn't so in New York.
It's easy to blame capitalism for its imperfections. It's much harder to see its merits.
06.15.2004 | Jonathan Leaf
I find it quite easy to see capitalism's merits, but when infant mortality in Harlem reaches Third World levels, I don't find the distinctions between Manhattan and Bangladesh to be as clear as I'd like.

And when banks redline businesses and mortgages in, say, black neighborhoods, I don't think of capitalism so much as "free enterprise" as much as a club which some may join easily, while others must clear extra obstacles first.
06.15.2004 | David L Steinhardt
Why do you assume capitalism is to blame for high infant mnortality rates in Harlem?
06.15.2004 | Jonathan Leaf
Quality of care tracks statistically with income in this country; with socialized medicine, health outcomes don't tend to track to class anywhere near as much. With the continuing rise in health care for profit, that disparity balloons.

06.16.2004 | David L Steinhardt
I support socialized medicine in America, but I think that tracking medical care to income is a bit reductive. In Northern cities, for instance, you would want to look at factors such as the traditional distrust of doctors by the Southern migrants whose descendents still make up a sizable part of the population of the black ghettos and the language barrier between recent Hispanic immigrants and care providers. In rural areas you'd want to look at the traditional culture of self-reliance and the centralization of health care in large communities. Ignoring these factors and pretending the problem can be solved with concern and money will bring nothing more than a reprise of the failed policies of the Great Society.
06.16.2004 | Tim Marchman
Fair enough, but we're sinking into digressions: the question I was trying to address was whether Mr. Kuby was speaking reasonably to say that corporations treat human life as a commodity, etc.

Without wanting to give the mob credit for anything at all, I find that statement quite true.
06.16.2004 | David L Steinhardt
We in "developing" countries where dumping of products like medicines which are already expired or were banned in "developed" countries are either dying or suffering. Surely there are more subtle ways of "terrorism" than what is being sensationalized by international media.
06.16.2004 | vernun s.b. tang
I thought that the conflict over medecine between the developing and developed world revoled around the latter's relutance to subsidize its supply of the former--and beneath this ruse terrorism lurked all along!!
06.16.2004 | Vladimir DeVola
In every country where socialized medicine has been tried it has led to a reduced quality of care (on a relative basis at the very least). In Canada, they've actually had years since they went to a single-payer system during which mortality increased in absolute terms. Further, growing government involvment in health care stifles innovation and deters furture improvements in treatment.
There is an obvious conflict between freedom (i.e. development of new treatments and life-saving procedures) and equality. This is hardly news. And it goes far beyond the issue of personal responsibility for patient outcomes in different areas and among different populations - an issue which few people wish to deal with honestly. Should one really expect patient outcomes to not bear correlation with income when indices of obesity, smoking and many other unhealthy habits also track with this? Care in Harlem is still much better than what many wealthy people get in most of the world. To what degree then should we change our present system? There is no obvious or easy answer. There can't be one. Whatever we do will have costs both in the near and long-term. Is progress in the introduction of treatments of greatest importance? Is availability of care? Should dangerous city hospitals be closed - even if the bad and costly care they provide is the most proximate to troubled patient populations? Should doctors be forced to live in rural areas where treatment is harder to obtain?
In approaching such quandries, the very least we can do is acknowledge that any choice we make involves trade-offs. Too, we might also acknowledge the real advantages of our system - without engaging in nonsensical blather about how great socialism is. Does Kuby want to actually live in Cuba? Does Chomsky? Of course not.
Why not start genuinely crediting capitalism for its merits? And, no, I don't believe, Mr. Steinhardt, that you've have done that.
06.17.2004 | Jonathan Leaf
Jonathan, that's all fair. I support socialized medicine not because I believe it is better in all ways than our present system but because I believe good health care is an absolute right and that nobody should be denied care because of money. It would be more inefficient in some ways; innovation would in some ways be stifled. But there is a middle ground between Soviet-style centralization and unfettered free marketism, and I don't think it's fair to raise Cuba's health care system as an example of what people are supporting.

The quality of prenatal care my wife and I are getting right now is phenomenal, absolutely amazing, and it would be denied us if we didn't have money. That's wrong. It's more than fair to point out the problems that have arisen in the European and Canadian systems, but I don't think the issue should be treated as anything other than a primarily moral one, before which arguments on the general merits of the market recede to some degree.

Back to the point, I don't concede moral equivalence between John Gotti and the Ford Corporation.
06.17.2004 | Tim Marchman
I think you understand what I'm saying. There's a lot I don't like about big companies, and their influence on the Congress.
Nor do I think the arguments for a single-payer health care system can be said to be wrong. They just involve different costs and will create different problems than other approaches to distributing scarce health-care resources and limited amounts of wealth.
I'd be the first to say that it's impossible to weigh questions of this kind on an absolute scale of values. My own life was saved by the development of surgical procedures devised not long before my birth and just a few years before they were used on me to treat a childhood kidney problem that I then had. Which is more important: new innovations of this sort or universal availability of existing treatments? Who can answer sucha question categorically?
I merely say that I think it's stupid to create cardboard villains that we can use to blame for everything. I liked Ron Kuby personally - as I'll talk about more next week - but I don't respect his attitudes or beliefs.
06.17.2004 | Jonathan Leaf

And fortunately, because our Constitutional (not our economic) system guarantees I need bow to no one and no system, I don't have to!!

Three cheers for America!!
06.17.2004 | David L Steinhardt
Within the brackets at the top of the above post, I'd quoted Mr. Leaf's comment about my not having given capitalism sufficient credit.
06.17.2004 | David L Steinhardt
Hey man! It took you three friggin' years to publish your interview with me? And you spend all that space reading my facial expressions?? Time to give me a call and we can update things. Peace. Ron
07.7.2004 | ron kuby
Worse it took me two weeks to notice your replay. Will call if you're willing to speak. Many thanks.
07.23.2004 | Jonathan Leaf

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