The Chains That Bind

When reflecting on the American struggle for independence from Great Britain (1775-1783), one of the things that stands out was how the colonists had lost faith in the system they previously lived under. Arguing that the British crown had violated their innate rights of life, liberty, and property, they enumerated their grievances on paper, noting that “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

The Articles of Confederation (1781) and the subsequent Constitution (1791) of the “United States of America” were a product of this disillusionment with the British system of common law, where government action was circumscribed by custom. Obviously, the American Founders held that this limitation was not sufficient to prevent tyranny, and they set out to create a better form of government, based on written laws, to better “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

If there are doubts about the clarity of this intent, let these words of Thomas Jefferson dispel any: “In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution” (1798).

Fast-forward to 2005. The USA PATRIOT Act, adopted in the aftermath of the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks, gives unprecedented power to the executive branch. It is up for renewal, but there is opposition even from some prominent conservatives. The 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush, snaps at one of his aides who argues that some of the PATRIOT Act’s provisions may be unconstitutional: “Stop throwing the Constitution in my face! It’s just a goddamned piece of paper!”

Other presidents have stepped on the Constitution before: Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, FDR… But one could argue that the American Republic surely reached its nadir when the chains intended to bind its rulers could be dismissed with impunity as “just a goddamned piece of paper.”

“I Will Make It Legal”

Over the years, the American Constitution inspired many imitations. Most of them, however, were never intended to be the chains to bind the government, but rather the chains with which the governments would bind their subjects. In the immortal words of Lord Acton, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

One could even argue that a system based on written laws was more vulnerable to abuse than one based on custom and tradition. If laws are just words on “goddamned pieces of paper,” it’s easy enough to alter the meaning of the words, and pretend the laws are still in effect, unchanged. And if that fails, there is always an Enabling Act of some sort, making sure the worst abuses were covered by a legal fig leaf.

This explains why today’s tyrants still pay lip service to laws, even as they break them on a daily basis.

The United States of Europe

Take, for example, the European Union. Originally presented as the free trade zone, it has grown into a bureaucratic Leviathan that directly dominates over 450 million people. Not a few people are uncomfortable with its tendency to accrue power at an alarming rate, and there are disturbing similarities between today’s EU and a Nazi dream from the 1940s.

If there is one constant about politicians everywhere, it would be that whatever power they have is never enough; they must always have more. Thus the Eurocrats have sought to give the Union more trappings of actual statehood – a president, anthem, legislative and executive powers, for instance. The constitution proposed in 2005, however, was rejected in plebiscites by French and Dutch voters – only to be reintroduced last year, only slightly modified, as the “Treaty of Lisbon.”

Disguising the constitution as a treaty was supposed to make its passage easier; it enabled the member governments to ratify it in legislatures, without holding referenda that could have inconvenient results. Brussels was not alarmed that there had to be a referendum in Ireland; after all, the Irish had been receiving generous subsidies from the EU for decades, virtually all the state institutions supported the treaty, and there was plenty of political pressure and even sex-based propaganda.

In spite of it all, the Irish voted “No” on June 12.

Outraged Eurocrats and the commentariat howled how “unfair” it was that 3 million Irish could hold 450 million Europeans hostage. They never explained how 27 prime ministers making the choice for those 450 million was any better.

Already, the Eurocrats are seeking ways to circumvent the Irish vote and push the treaty/constitution through anyway. They are good at such subterfuge, after all: when the Irish rejected an earlier treaty, in 2001, their rulers simply organized another vote next year. No doubt, voting would have continued until the desired result was achieved. So, unless the Irish refusal emboldens other disgruntled subjects of the Union, they will still end up under the Brussels yoke, eventually.

Fake States and Fake Laws

Three days after the Irish torpedoed the EU constitution, the EU’s puppet state of Kosovo proclaimed a constitution of its own. Ironically, this supposed pinnacle of independent achievement by the Albanian separatists was proclaimed on schedule set out in the “Ahtisaari Plan,” a document put together by a diplomat appointed by the UN to legalize the land grab of this occupied Serbian province.

Having decided that their 1999 invasion and occupation of Kosovo was a “unique case,” and thus exempt from laws governing the behavior of nations, NATO countries first sponsored Ahtisaari’s proposal, then orchestrated Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February this year. Appeals to law, justice, and even logic from Serbia and Russia fell on deaf ears. Furthermore, those behind the illegal secession of Kosovo are now pointing fingers at Serbia and Russia as the source of “tensions” and “obstacles to peace and stability.”

Blair crony Denis MacShane, for example, argued in Newsweek that Serbs and Macedonians are a threat to peace because they dare to question legitimate Albanian claims (to their countries!). In another time, this sort of thinking would be called appeasement. Today it’s visionary statesmanship.

To be fair, it isn’t hard to see why both the Albanians and their Western sponsors believe in the ultimate success of their fait accompli policy; Serbia’s leadership, deeply in thrall to Western interests, has failed to mount any sort of substantial challenge to Kosovo’s separation. After all, the “pro-European democratic reformers” can’t bite the hand that feeds them; and if that means the Serbian constitution is just a “goddamn piece of paper,” so be it.

End of Decency

An entire civilization once based on the rule of law has become corrupt, embracing the dubious notion that law can be whatever the ruling elites say it is. Dislike the outcome of elections? Have another – or better yet, circumvent the results. If that is dictatorial behavior when practiced by Robert Mugabe, why would it be different when practiced by Javier Solana?

The truth so successfully repressed by modern states is that written laws can only work when the meaning of words is not being perverted. Constitutions cannot protect liberty if they imply that liberty is something granted by the state; for if so, then the state can just as easily take it away. If people don’t care about freedom, they will find themselves in servitude soon enough, laws or not.

That “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” the American Founders referred to seems to be gone as well. As the modern history of the Balkans clearly shows, “they would not dare” is a naïve belief at best. The dangerous delusion that governments are still bound by the chains of constitutions has lulled people to sleep, while thugs of all stripes have gone on to create a Hobbesian universe in which might makes right and life is nasty, brutish, and short.

The world of 2008 is such a far cry from 1776. Pity.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.