When John Adams described America as ‘a nation of laws, not men’ he was reacting against tyrannical royal rulers and imagining a country that would be sustained by a system of shared tenents that transcend individual personalities. I have always thought that the most engaging aspect of the United States as a nation is that we have not been shaped by territorial borders, as most other countries are, but by our shared vision of this way of governing. Over the past 200 plus years our country’s growth has been shaped as much by voluntary entry by groups seeking our system than by traditional military conquest (although there has been some of that as well).
There are times when the equanimity implicit in ‘a nation of laws, not men’ works against popular will. That is why we need the Bill of Rights and groups like ACLU to defend it, although there are times when even the most open minded of us are appalled by the stances that group is obliged to take. Still, every time we bend the concept of the rule of law for expediency, righteousness, or popularity, I am convinced that any short term gain we realize is ultimately undermined by deteriorating this elemental aspect of our nation.
Over the past few years there have been many examples of our country shirking the requirements of acting as a nation of laws in every sphere of endeavor. The scales of justice are not evenly balanced if you are a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay as opposed to one in Fort Leavenworth, if you are a homeless man accused of pedophilia as opposed to a priest, if you rob millions through shifty financial instruments as opposed to using a gun at a bank, or if you are Lindsey Lohan as opposed to just about anyone. The strength of our system is that it relies on human judgment, and therein lies its weakness, as we will inevitably by swayed by societal norms, celebrity, and patriotic stirrings.
The counter to the intrinsic swaying of our system is the diversity of the press. Imperfect as it is, the press plays an important role in framing both sides of challenging arguments. Would things have been worse at Guantanamo without reporting? Would the Catholic Church still be protecting their perverted priests? Would AGI still be sailing blind? I fear so. Even Lindsey Lohan may yet find public redemption. After all, look at Robert Downey, Jr.
So I want to know where is the counter argument to the euphoria surrounding the United States military action in Pakistan that murdered Osama Bin Laden? The press reports appear to be only jubilant celebrations. At University of Massachusetts, where my children attend, 2,000 students spilled out for a spontaneous riot the night the news hit, which a later email from administration to parents described as a patriotic outpouring. David Gergen, UMass’ commencement speaker, praised the student’s demonstration and hailed the military action without reservation. Obama’s ratings are up. Everyone is feeling good.
Except me. Because I think a murder is a murder and an eye for an eye is the rule of Hammurabi, not the United States. It is interesting to note that Old Testament statements about an eye for an eye (Exodus 21) are applied only among social equals; an owner who injures a slave does not receive the same disability. Alternatively, Leviticus makes the case for a more universal legal code – one system of justice applied across all peoples (referred to as the alien and the citizen) but does not reference an eye for an eye as the appropriate system. For what have we done by acting independent of law and murdering Bin Laden except put ourselves on the same playing field as the terrorists? When we act like them, we legitimize them.
It would have been more difficult to capture Bin Laden, to try Bin Laden in an international court, to work through an arduous process to establish guilt and assign punishment. Not that guilt would be have been difficult to prove. The man was a demon and he took pride in letting everyone know it. The reason for taking the legal road would not have been because guilt was in doubt, but because that is the way we are supposed to do it, even with someone as heinous as Bin Laden. Laws do not only apply to nice people, they apply to all people. And though International Law is not the same as our own, we should abide by it, at a minimum, and abide by our own if it is more stringent, because in theory it is what we truly believe in.
Instead we retaliated. Blood flowed, adrenalin flowed. We feel good. Bin Laden is dead. But we have lost our ability to proclaim a higher ground. We chose force – efficient and exciting – over due process. Now we wait for the counter retaliations. And how will we respond to those?
As Gandhi said, “an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye and the whole world is blind”. Let us remain clear sighted. Not because it is popular or satisfying, but because we have the responsibility to live by the high ideals our forefathers so wisely established.