Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Nation of Laws?

Watch ‘n Wait: Haven’t heard from you for “ever-so-long.” Yes, I agree, Jon Huntsman seems like a decent sort, reasonable, intelligent, informed, and perhaps even relatively honest, but as he has spoken well of Obama I doubt he can last very long in the present Republican milieu. Besides, I think it’s unfortunately true, “Nice guys finish last.”

How often have you heard various officials proudly, even boastfully claim that we (the U.S.) are a nation of laws? If you haven’t heard it often you must not have been listening. I am not going to discuss this as another example of U.S. hypocrisy, but, rather, as another example of the weird world of surrealism we currently inhabit. It’s a claim that is probably even more far-fetched than our continuing belief that we live in a democracy.

For convenience I will not speak of the world pre-2000, only developments since that time. It would appear that breaking the law has become the norm rather than the exception, at least when it comes to the behavior of our various “leaders” or “important people.” Take Rush Limbaugh, for example, caught breaking the drug laws, both by illegally acquiring drugs and also by having drugs in his position for which he did not personally have a prescription. Did Rush go to jail for either of these offenses? Of course he did not. How about Senator Vitter of Louisiana, caught paying prostitutes for sex, obviously against the law? Did Vitter go to jail, of course not, he is still a Senator, has the support of the Republican Party and holds successful fund raisers. Then there is the case of Senator John Ensign, caught breaking the law but allowed to stay in the Senate anyway (until recently when he may or may not face charges). Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been pretty obviously breaking the law for some time but it is doubtful that anything will be done about it. There are reasons to believe that Karl Rove has broken the law on more than one occasion but somehow he escapes justice. It is pretty near certain that Newt Gingrich has broken the law with his various fund-raising and private businesses but as yet he has not been held accountable.

Let’s move on to more important cases. There is little doubt that various banks and Wall Street executives have repeatedly broken laws regulating their activities. With perhaps rare exceptions they have not been held accountable and apparently will not be. It is almost certainly the case that the Department of Justice under the Bush/Cheney administration broke the law when making appointments on political rather than professional grounds. In even more egregious cases Bush/Cheney, along with their appointees recklessly broke the law when it came to lying to the American public about going to war with Iraq. Their attack on Iraq, a nation that was no danger to us, was based entirely on lies and constituted the single worst war crime possible. The “war” on Iraq involved multiple crimes and lawbreaking, torture, war profiteering, the use of outlawed weapons, killing of civilians, and so on. These admitted criminals have not been held accountable for their lawbreaking. It is believed by many responsible scholars that Clinton, as President, broke the law with respect to the Balkans, and there is no doubt that Bush broke the laws regularly. It is even claimed by some at the moment that President Obama has broken the law with respect to our involvement in Libya (which he probably has). It is impossible even to imagine how many laws are broken with respect to illegal contributions to Congresspersons or others in positions of power. Occasionally someone is caught but they rarely get more than a slap on the wrist.

This issue of lawbreaking is, of course, very complicated. This is because in some cases Congress has managed to pass laws that actually make what might well be considered crime, legal. Thus it is that banks and insurance companies are able to exploit the public in ways that certainly ought to be illegal but under our current laws are not. And remember how easily Bush/Cheney managed to arrange for their lawyers to simply change the law and make torture, clearly illegal, presumably legal. If you have power you can have the laws changed to suit yourself.

There is also the question of the “Living Law” vs. Formal laws. That is, sometimes things may be technically illegal because there are formal, written laws against them, but over time those formal laws have been ignored for so long the practices become, for all intents and purposes, legal. I should think unmarried couples living together (unlawful cohabitation) might well be a case of the living law eventually becoming legal. Homosexual behavior formerly considered illegal is another case in point. Violating precedent might be another area where things are not entirely clear. The Supreme Court, for example, when they made Bush President, could be said to have broken the law as if they did not break any formal law certainly made a decision so bad and so unprecedented that even they said at the time it should never be used as a precedent. The case of Clarence Thomas in some respects is somewhat similar. Even if technically there is no law that requires a Justice to recuse him/herself when he/she has a conflict of interest, decent Justices traditionally have usually done so. Scalia and Thomas have not always done so and in effect just thumbed their nose at tradition or what might be considered the more or less living law.

It appears to me that at least since 2000 the law has been ignored perhaps more than followed, and those who have violated laws, like in starting illegal wars, torturing, and the “outing of Valerie Plane,” for example, have managed to escape punishment entirely (except for Libby who was pardoned by Bush, thus showing contempt for the law in still another case).

There is also the fact that laws are sometimes different for different classes of people. Black people, for example, are much more severely punished for drug violations than are Whites (and much more severely punished for murdering Whites than Whites are for murdering Blacks), and everyone knows (or at least believes) that if you have enough money you can pretty much manage to avoid punishment for even the most terrible of crimes (think O.J. Simpson, for example).

The claim that the U.S. is a “nation of laws” seems to me to be just another myth we tolerate rather than a matter-of-fact, certainly since the Nightmare Years of the 21st century, when laws seemingly were ignored to the point they became largely irrelevant to what was happening in our country. If we actually behaved according to “the rule of law” things would be very different indeed.

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