Rule of Lawlessness

Posted January 2, 2006

Categories: Articles

The HBO series Deadwood depicts a town on the American frontier where law is the exception rather than the rule. The inhabitants of this gold-mining town in the Dakota Territory in the 1870s rely on guns and intimidation and, if necessary, a little torture to secure their claims. Outside, in the wilderness, Indian tribes use terror to repel the intruders, though the canny leaders of Deadwood often magnify that threat to justify their own bending of the rules of civilized behavior. Meanwhile, politicians in nearby state capitols and far away Washington try to establish the rule of law in the territory. But Deadwood sees only more hands reaching for their gold and meddling in their way of life.

If Dallas and Miami Vice became emblematic of the Reagan years, Deadwood is the series that best captures the political mentality of the George W. Bush era. The administration has transported the United States back to the ethics of the frontier. In this territory of twilight morality, where power trumps principle, terrorists assail “our way of life,” and distant institutions of law (the United Nations, the International Criminal Court) stick their noses where they don’t belong. Osama appears on the Most Wanted poster, the faceless terrorists substitute for the faceless “Injuns,” and justice is administered not by the gavel but by the gun. Western values indeed!

The latest attack on the rule of law in George W. Bush’s Deadwood—what FPIF contributor Dan Smith calls the second round after the Guantanamo detainees, the horrors of Abu Ghraib, and the CIA renditions—is the administration’s challenge of habeas corpus. This cornerstone of the constitutional tradition, which dates back to the Magna Carta years of the 13th century, guarantees the right of the accused to appear before the court for a determination of whether imprisonment is lawful or not.

This protection against unlawful detention has been the rule of law in the United States with only three exceptions. President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus at the start of the Civil War largely to keep Maryland in the Union. President Grant suspended the right in his campaign against the Ku Klux Klan in the South during Reconstruction.

And now, during the current war on terrorism, President Bush has suspended the right for non-citizens accused of being enemy combatants. And so, the 400-plus detainees in Guantanamo haven’t had the right to appear before their accusers. In June, the Supreme Court overruled the Bush administration (just as the courts overruled Lincoln back in 1861). But it didn’t matter. Congress passed new legislation in October that confirms a separate review process for the detainees through military tribunals with considerably lower standards.

And that’s not all. As Dan Smith points out in “Dude, Where Are My Rights?” Justice Department lawyers recently argued in the Circuit Court to empower “the government to hold indefinitely any immigrant, legal or illegal, arrested on suspicion on terrorism. As with the Guantanamo 440, those arrested would not be permitted to challenge their detention in civilian courts—a right heretofore accorded alien residents.”

First it was the aliens. Now it’s the immigrants (which theoretically applies to everyone but Native Americans). Who will be next as we slip inexorably back toward the frontier’s rule of lawlessness?

Meanwhile in the Gulag

It has always been tricky for the United States to get up on its high horse to criticize human rights abuses around the world. Our own record of respecting human rights—in South Vietnam, Chile, El Salvador, and now Iraq—has not exactly been stellar. Whether it’s the Abu Ghraib or the domestic abridgement of habeas corpus, such a record provides cover for other countries to divert attention from their own abhorrent policies.

Take, for example, this press release from March 2006: “The U.S. should abolish laws encouraging torture if it is to stop monstrous human rights abuses. And it should close down all secret prisons in different parts of the world including the Baghram Prison in Afghanistan and the prison of the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo as well as the Abu Ghraib Prison.”

Who could take issue with this sensible suggestion? Except that the statement comes from North Korea’s official press agency. And North Korea maintains prison camps that are appalling by any standard. Who is the kettle and who is the pot?

As one prison camp survivor, Kang Chol-Hwan, has written in his account Aquariums of Pyongyang, “The newly arriving prisoners were usually the first to die. If you made it through the adjustment period, though, you could expect to live for a good ten years more. The most important thing was fighting malnutrition, which was more punishing than even mistreatment by guards. Most of the camp’s diseases were not very serious, but in our weakened state a simple cold could kill.”

Improbable as it might sound, a new musical chronicles the human rights abuses in a North Korean prison camp. Yoduk Story has created considerable controversy in South Korea where it premiered earlier this year. The song-and-dance numbers provide some truly horrifying pictures of conditions inside the prison. But while the creators of the musical were able to escape North Korea, they haven’t managed to escape the system’s mindset.

“There is a flatness to both Yoduk Story and the propaganda it intends to strip away,” I write in a new contribution to Fiesta entitled Anti-Socialist Realism. “The reductive dualism of North Korean ideology—you’re either with us or against us—can be detected in the deep structure of the musical. In the same way that high-ranking defector Hwang Jang Yop went from architect of the North Korean system to its greatest detractor with his ideological inflexibility intact, the director of Yoduk Story has switched sides without fully escaping the sentimental education that has so shaped his worldview.”

Some Good News

In the mountainous country of Nepal, Maoist insurgents are coming in from the cold. After years of fighting, the guerrillas have decided to team up with the democratic opposition to oust the monarch and reestablish the parliament. The historic November 8 agreement promises to bring back the rule of law to Nepal.

And where is the United States in all of this? The Bush administration hasn’t looked kindly on the change of heart of the Nepali Maoists. It has maintained its distance from the current peace process.

Murari Sharma, FPIF contributor and former Nepali ambassador to the UN, believes that the United States “can preserve and shape its influence in Kathmandu only by getting involved in the peace process, not by standing on the sideline, maintaining its hostility toward the Maoist insurgency, or preparing for the renewal of conflict. As Washington prepares for a new political reality in the wake of the November 7 elections, the Bush administration and the new Congress should promote the peace process in Nepal as part of their new emphasis on non-military solutions to conflict.”

The good news continues with the IRC’s new public service announcements that promote Global Good Neighbor. Check out the five PSAs and then contact your local radio station to make sure they get played.

Finally, check out poet E. Ethelbert Miller’s interview with novelist Charles Johnson on the relationship between Buddhism and pacifism. It’s part of a regular feature in Fiesta in which Miller engages major cultural figures on issues of global importance.

FPIF, November 28, 2006

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *