“Two things are infinite the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”
– attributed to Albert Einstein
Time moves at a less frenetic pace on C-SPAN than elsewhere on television. Last week, they showed four law professors testifying before the House Judiciary Committee about the FBI raid on Capitol Hill. Bruce Fein, deputy attorney general under Ronald Reagan was, as usual, brilliant. Putting his finger on a central weakness of our style of discourse, cause of many a derailed public discussion after 9/11, he pointed out the perils of forgetting the essential in pursuit of the incidental. Fein emphasized that the principle was key. If you let a (bad) principle stand and challenge only the incident, it’s like ignoring a loaded weapon that can be brought out and used later.
Here Fein was talking about the principle of separation of powers, admonishing the committee to be firm in addressing the violation of this principle, instead of getting caught up in whether, in this case, Congressman William Jefferson (D-La.) hid money in his refrigerator.
Fein’s advice is more widely applicable. A few months ago, I pointed out how, in answer to a question from Chuck Schumer about whether the executive branch had the authority to tap the phones of its political opponents, Alberto Gonzales merely said, “We’re not going to do that.” Schumer and the other members simply moved on, apparently satisfied. Gonzales did not reject the principle of a government spying on its political opponents; he only said they were forbearing from doing so at present.
Everyone is now talking about Haditha. It is the Abu Ghraib of 2006. A perennial stock-in-trade of all such atrocities is the phrase “innocent civilians” (see also “Civilians and Combatants“), which leads one to ask: If these were innocent civilians, what crime did the other 100,000 Iraqis commit, those who have been killed, maimed, and displaced by Bush and Blair’s war? Or the half-million children estimated to have died during the sanctions preceding the invasion?
Here, too, Fein’s point is valid: if we were not in Iraq, there would be no Hadithas and no Abu Ghraibs. It is the principle of the thing. In all the millions of words expended on the Iraq War by senators and congressmen, talking heads, and journalists, a basic question seldom finds a place: How was it correct to invade a country that had not attacked us? If only we had persisted with this simple point of principle. But this essential question never figured much in any debate.
Similar is the answer to charges of warrantless wiretapping: If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about. That this does not trouble most senators is bad enough; that this point is actually advanced by some of them is astonishing. It is unnecessary to stress that if this is acceptable in principle, so is the prospect of the local cops breaking into your home or car and searching it. Once you compromise on the principle of due process, the road downhill quickly beckons.
The administration is not averse to principles when convenient, pointing to Saddam Hussein’s trial as upholding the principle that “no one is above the Law.” Saddam Hussein and his colleagues are being prosecuted for the deaths of people in Dujail. No one alleges that Saddam Hussein personally executed anyone. One more principle is then invoked, executive accountability. If these principles are applicable and celebrated by America and Britain, when will Bush and Blair be put in the dock for Haditha?
Read more by Niranjan Ramakrishnan
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They Shun Signs – May 27th, 2006