Friday, April 24, 2009

"Outside the Law Is Tyranny"

drawing by Goya, ca 1826

I remember first seeing that quote from Montesquieu in Washington DC inscribed over an entrance to the Justice Department back in 1989. I remember reflecting on just how much "extra legal" activity had already taken place in that building up to that time.

Paul Krugman has an excellent column this morning on the urgent necessity to investigate and prosecute the crimes of the Bush administration.  Nothing less than the rule of law is at stake.

The whole business of imperial politics from Caesar to Clausewitz is such a boys' game.  It's all one big chess game, moving around the pieces on the board for the sake of advantage.  It's all one big game of "Risk" only with real people on a real planet instead of pieces on a board.  Sure, some of it is driven by ideological or religious passions, but that just makes the players all the more determined to win.  It doesn't change the game, or challenge the idea that politics is a game.

The rest of us poor saps have to live in that game whether we like it or not.

The whole business of law is to reign in the impulses and ambitions of men and women, to remind the mighty and the wicked that they must share one world with all the rest of us.   Law reminds us all that we each have a legitimate claim upon this world, and that we share it with others whose claim upon it is as real as our own.

In the United States, the people are officially sovereign.  This country is not the dominion of a monarch or a dear leader, it is our dominion.  The government is ours acting in our name.  Like a monarch, we are ultimately responsible for the policies of our government.  The reality of the United States may be closer to an oligarchy, but the official line is that we are still a democracy.  The court still rises in respect when the jury enters.  No one, so far, is obliged to rise from their seat and doff their hat when a powerful corporate maharaja enters the room.  As citizens, we are obliged to bow our heads and bend our knees to no one.

The crimes of the Bush Administration were done in our name and for our sake.  As sovereign people, we bear a measure of responsibility for those crimes, and also for their rectification.
I am astonished at the reluctance of the governing classes to investigate and prosecute these crimes.   I'm more astonished at partisans who try to justify these crimes in the name of expediency.  Whether they "worked" or not is ultimately irrelevant.  Once a bright and clear line has been crossed, where do we stop?  What's to stop some future dear leader of any political persuasion from declaring his critics to be "terrorists" and beating them into submission? 

This is more than a pragmatic matter of defending law and democracy, it is a moral matter that goes to the heart of what it means to be human.  It is the line between being human and being a monster.  This bright line was best articulated by the late scientist and philosopher Jacob Bronowski.
There are two parts to the human dilemma.  One is the belief that the end justifies the means.  That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering, has become the monster in the war machine.  The other is the betrayal of the human spirit:  the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilization, into a regiment of ghosts -- obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.


1 comment:

Grandmère Mimi said...

Counterlight, when Obama decided to release the memos, he pretty much lost control of where the investigations will go. The toothpaste is out of the tube. I think he must have thought that through before he made the decision. He doesn't seem like an impulsive man.

Those who are opposed to a special prosecutor are quite right. The investigation then would be taken outside the public eye. The story needs to play out, remain in the news, so that more of the public becomes aware of the horror of the dirty deeds that the Bush maladministration perpetrated in our name. Yes, that cuts to the quick. IN MY NAME!

Thanks for a fine post.