On the Rule of Law

The September/October issue of the Boston Review includes an excellent piece by Elaine Scarry about George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s repeated violations of U.S. law over the last eight years. She gives a meticulous list of these violations, but she also details the retaliations against those who spoke out, and the continuing efforts of ordinary citizens to subject the President and his Vice-President to the rule of law.

It’s such a carefully argued piece that I hesitate to excerpt at all. But I suppose I ought to give you at least a little taste:

“How long won’t you stand for injustice?” asks Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. If you’re going to get tired after half an hour, she advises, or after a week, or after a month, you might as well leave right now. Mother Courage storms into a military headquarters to lodge a complaint, and, finding a young lieutenant there who is waiting to make his own complaint, she launches into her disquisition on the impossible fortitude and stamina required, and does this so effectively that she persuades herself. She promptly leaves without lodging any complaint. The event takes place shortly after the military execution, without trial, of her soldier son.Part of what makes the thought of prosecuting Bush so aversive is that it would be utterly exhausting. President Bush has repeatedly short circuited protest against one outrageous illegality by quickly carrying out a second, third, fourth, and fifth, so that the citizenry is kept in a permanent state of astonishment and cannot recover its own ground long enough to do more than cry out. Now, at the end of his administration, the sheer number of accumulated wrongful acts disempowers the collective will to act, and tempts us to elect our way back into a legal order, and simply close the door on the revolting spectacle of the last eight years.

But is closing the door actually an option? If the country is to renew its commitment to the rule of law, that outcome will require reeducating ourselves about what the law is. The law aspires to symmetry across cases. Among the more than two million Americans in prison and jail in 2006 was a young woman, Lynndie England, whose smiling face was photographed at Abu Ghraib as she held a dog leash attached to the neck of a naked prisoner. Yet at Guantánamo, where direct White House agency has been elaborately documented, the long list of acts actually practiced includes: “Tying a dog leash to detainee’s chain, walking him around the room and leading him through a series of dog tricks.”61 How long won’t you stand for injustice?

The entire article is freely available at the Boston Review site. Read it.


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