The Panama Papers scandal triggered tsunami waves of shock throughout the world's media, as if this were an unprecedented event. It is not. The concealment of fortunes, often acquired through illicit means by corrupt politicians, world leaders and powerful individuals, has long been commonplace.
But perhaps the light shined by the Panama Papers could lead to actual reform. We can only hope.
Within the 11.5 million leaked documents are implications that 12 current or former world leaders, as well as 128 other politicians and public officials, engaged in various potential financial crimes.
This information comes from an anonymous hack of a Panama law firm which apparently has been shielding secret fortunes for almost 40 years. But before Panama, the places to go for secret offshore accounts were Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore. And long before that, everyone whispered about secret Swiss bank accounts.
Stealing and hiding money is almost as old as money itself. And those with the greatest ability to steal and conceal have always been the boldest and most powerful among us: our so-called heads of state.
Here's just a sprinkling of contemporary "leaders" accused of siphoning off billions of dollars of their own citizens' wealth and hoarding it for themselves in secret locations: Hosni Mubarak (Egypt), Pavlo Lazarenko, (Ukraine), Sheik Fahad Mohammed Al-Sabah (Kuwait), Moammar Gadhafi (Libya), Ferdinand Marcos (Philippines), Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier (Haiti), Augusto Pinochet (Chile), Sani Abacha (Nigeria), Mobutu Seko (Zaire), Saddam Hussein (Iraq), and of course Kim Jong-Un (North Korea).
What that, you say? Most of those are or were crude dictators of disheveled states?
Yes, but the Panama Papers do break new ground by revealing what many of us knew all along: It happens everywhere. Some have been just a little better at hiding it.
Named in the Panama Papers scandal are the father of Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, Iceland Prime Minister David Gunnlaugsson (who resigned because of this), President Mauricio Macri of Argentina, close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and relatives of President Xi Jinping of China.
Investigative journalists reviewing the Panama Papers also identified King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Argentinian soccer star Lionel Messi (worth some $240 million). Officials from FIFA, soccer's world governing body, and UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, were also singled out in the Panama Papers.
No names of U.S. leaders have surfaced in the investigation, but one reason may be that it's easy to form the same kind of opaque shell companies to hide wealth in the United States. Americans "really don't need to go to Panama," said James Henry, an economist and senior adviser to the Tax Justice Network, as reported in the New York Times. "Basically, we have an onshore haven industry in the U.S. that is as secretive as anywhere."
Just because you were identified in the Panama Papers doesn't mean you have committed a crime, but it certainly does suggest that you are trying to hide money.
Ideally, it is the corruption of stealing and hiding money that we would like to stop.
A case in point is my native Afghanistan: Over the past 15 years, the U.S. has spent billions of dollars there, but according to findings by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, millions of those dollars cannot be accounted for.
In one astonishing 2009 incident, Afghanistan's then-vice-president Ahmad Zia Massoud was stopped and questioned in Dubai when he landed there with $52 million in cash, according to WikiLeaks. Massoud was questioned by officials from the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates, but was allowed to go his way without even explaining where the money came from.
This was the same Ahmad Zia Moussoud who took an oath as the special envoy for "reform and good governance" under Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Sarah Chayes is a U.S. journalist who spent eight years in Afghanistan, and in her brilliant book "Thieves of State," she warns of the dire consequences of corruption, which she sees as a principal threat to global security.
Why is the west turning a blind eye to this corruption? Perhaps because its banks and economies benefit. Much of this stolen money will be pumped into the western economies.
The world ought to take this wake-up call of the Panama Papers and enforce drastic measures to hinder world leaders and their cronies from the backward Robin Hood practice of stealing from the poor and giving to their own bloated, secret offshore accounts.
A consortium of nations could crack down on financial institutions that shield assets from the laws of their original lands. Full transparency could lead to enforced compliance with tax laws.
Theft and corruption crave secrecy. While the Panama Papers don't reveal any new behaviors we haven't seen for many generations, perhaps they can serve the function of shining a light on all the new cockroaches. Are we just going to let them scurry away, or are we going to do something about it?