Monday, April 27, 2009

What Xu taught me long ago

Some years ago, strolling through through Chicago's Grant Park, Xu had summed up what she conceived to be the main problem with her country.

"China is a country ruled by men not law" she said.

My friend was a member of the class of '89 at Beijing University. She had stood arm in arm with her classmates beside a replica Statue of Liberty which they had erected in Tienanmen Square.

Why Lady Liberty? Xu and her fellow students knew America to have been the first country on earth designed around the rule of law. In 1989 people around the world still viewed the United States as the highest embodiment of that ideal.

A lot has been said about torture over the past week, but I think there has been altogether too much focus on celebrity personalities; on the individuals who may be implicated in crimes: Of course, I'm talking about George Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Yoo, and other administration officials. It is important that we look at these men the way Lady Justice sees them.

In America, Liberty's sister, Justice, is almost always pictured wearing blindfolds. The social status, the skin color, the gender, and political affiliation of the individuals implicated in crimes is completely irrelevant to her. As Thomas Paine wrote, "in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other." Before the law, every man is the equal of every other man.

Power tends to corrupt, leading some people to behave with disregard towards the rights of others. The founding fathers understood this aspect of human psychology. They had read about the excesses of Roman emperors Commodus, Elagabalus, Caligula, Domitian and Nero,* and been appalled by the actions of George III. That's why they made high office holders take an oath to always faithfully defend the Constitution. The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution stipulates "due process of law"; the Eighth Amendment prohibits "cruel and unusual punishments." Article IV of the Constitution states:
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties, made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the Supreme Law of the Land...
Among those treaties and laws that all officials of the United States have sworn to uphold are the Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions. These conventions were enacted in much the same spirit as the US Constitution; they reflect the recognition that power corrupts, and those wielding power -- even in times of war -- must be held to account for their actions by laws.

Americans and global citizens alike, observing where crimes appear to have been committed, can inform the US Department of Justice. The sequence of events, who ordered what, whether suspects' actions might have been justified by extenuating circumstances,** all these are matters for the courts to determine.

Because torture is a crime. And where serious crimes have occurred, every attempt must be made to bring about justice. It really is that simple, in a nation ruled by law, so Xu taught me long ago.
* "... the Founding Fathers read the Twelve Caesars and mined it for negative information about the emperors..." writes Carl J. Richard in Greeks and Romans bearing gifts.
** Section 2.2, Convention Against Torture: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."

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