Everyone knows that in the United States if you’re a robber caught breaking into someone’s house, you’ll be brought to trial, but if you’re caught breaking into someone else’s country, you’ll be free to take to the lecture circuit, write your memoirs, or become a university professor. -- Tom EngelhardtI have written before about the Obama Adminstration's refusal to hold accountable those in the Bush Administration who authorized torture and how damaging it is to not have a true reckoning that confirms once and for all not just the immorality, but the illegality of torture. (See, e.g., Pitfalls of Only Looking Forward, Tortured Logic.) As I previously stated, "if we are to remain a nation of laws then when high government officials break the law or cynically bend the law to justify human rights violations there needs to be consequences." (No Spain, No Gain.) As Tom Engelhardt explains, in a great new piece on TomDispatch, which he kindly allows me to re-post here, by failing to bring wrongdoers to justice while instead prosecuting whistle blowers, we are indeed becoming a country that is no longer governed by the rule of law.
Dumb Question of the Twenty-first Century: Is It Legal?
Post-Legal America and the National Security Complex
By Tom Engelhardt, originally posted at TomDispatch, on May 30, 2011.
Is the Libyan war legal? Was Bin Laden’s killing legal? Is it legal for the president of the United States to target an American citizen for assassination? Were those “enhanced interrogation techniques” legal? These are all questions raised in recent weeks. Each seems to call out for debate, for answers. Or does it?
Now, you couldn’t call me a legal scholar. I’ve never set foot inside a law school, and in 66 years only made it onto a single jury (dismissed before trial when the civil suit was settled out of court). Still, I feel at least as capable as any constitutional law professor of answering such questions.
My answer is this: they are irrelevant. Think of them as twentieth-century questions that don't begin to come to grips with twenty-first century American realities. In fact, think of them, and the very idea of a nation based on the rule of law, as a reflection of nostalgia for, or sentimentality about, a long-lost republic. At least in terms of what used to be called “foreign policy,” and more recently “national security,” the United States is now a post-legal society. (And you could certainly include in this mix the too-big-to-jail financial and corporate elite.)
It’s easy enough to explain what I mean. If, in a country theoretically organized under the rule of law, wrongdoers are never brought to justice and nobody is held accountable for possibly serious crimes, then you don’t have to be a constitutional law professor to know that its citizens actually exist in a post-legal state. If so, “Is it legal?” is the wrong question to be asking, even if we have yet to discover the right one.