Executive director, Antiwar.com
It was 82 BC, after the great civil war in ancient Rome between Marius and Sulla. Pompey the Great was in Messana, Sicily, disposing of Marius’ remaining allies. When he came into Messana wielding his whole glorious army, the citizens of the town began shouting at him. They claimed that Pompey had no power in the town, according to “an ancient law of the Romans” (Plutarch, 10). However, Pompey the Great merely laughed at them, speaking his famous reply, “Stop quoting laws to us, we carry swords!” This simple little quotation demonstrates a horrible and timeless attribute of advanced civilizations, such as ancient Rome and even our United States of today. Marcus Tullius Cicero sums up this attribute best in his speech “Pro Milone”: “When arms speak, laws are silent.” From his quote one sees the true honor of this most famous orator, able to recognize such a problem of his society and ours today. However, from this quote, one does not know the rest of the story: Cicero’s fight was not against the silencing of laws, but for it. Leaders from ancient Rome to modern America have attempted to justify their actions with rephrased versions of Cicero’s quote, claiming that in times of war, the laws must often be ignored to accomplish the task of the greater good.
Cicero’s speech was his case on behalf of Titus Annius Milo. Milo was a leader in the ancient city of Rome and running for consul when a great tragedy befell him. He and his bodyguards were walking on the Appian Way when, completely by chance, they met up with Clodius, Milo’s great rival, and all the Clodian bodyguards. One insult led to another, there was a brawl, and Clodius was dead. The number one suspect was Milo, and Clodius’ supporters wanted Milo killed. In Cicero’s speech for Milo, the orator makes a valid argument. He reminds the jury of Rome’s common law that disallows any weapons from being carried in the city. He asks, “What is the meaning of the bodyguards that attend us and the swords that we carry? We should certainly not be permitted to have them, were we never to be permitted to use them” (Cicero 4.10). He claims there is another law, one “not of the statute-book, but of nature.” This law is self-defense. It “forbids not homicide, but the carrying of a weapon with a view to homicide” (Cicero 4.11). He continues to add that in court, the conditions of the case are considered, not why the person was carrying a weapon in the first place. The court commonly ignores the fact that the man had a weapon and instead worries only about whether this act was done with the intent of harming anyone. He tries to convince the jury of something that misses the point of the court altogether. The judiciary system was created to see if men obey the laws, not to investigate why they broke the laws and how much pity they should be given. Cicero used this common misconception as a basis of his entire case. And even though one may think such delusions have been a thing of the past, this idea seems to remain even today.
Marcus Aurelius once said, “Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future, too.” That is the reason we study history: to recognize the mistakes our race has made before and to learn from them. However, people do not seem to have learned much about Cicero and Milo because similar events have happened throughout the history of the United States. In 1970, there were protests occurring on university campuses all over the country in response to the invasion of Cambodia. On May 4, the National Guard opened fire “for reasons never fully explained” on a group of Kent State student protesters who were becoming violent (Eagles). Four students were wounded, nine injured. And again on May 13, two students were killed at Jackson State by National Guard. Is a war in Vietnam excuse enough to defend ourselves from college students by slaughtering them?
World War II had its problems, too: our government passed a few laws that were completely unacceptable in regards to constitutionality, claiming “wartime” justification. The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States reads, “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury” (Handy, 57). Yet in the midst of the fight against the Axis powers, President Roosevelt decided to ignore that amendment and make Executive Order 9066, a special presidential power that allowed the government to “relocate” certain citizens of the United States based on their Japanese heritage. Ove one hundred thousand Japanese Americans were interned following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, all under Roosevelt’s Order (Doughton). And how did the courts react? Roosevelt’s executive order was challenged in the Supreme Court twice by Japanese Americans: first in Hirabayashi v. United States and then in Korematsu v. United States. In the first case, Chief Justice Stone said, “[I]n time of war residents having ethnic affiliations with an invading enemy may be a greater source of danger than those of a different ancestry,” speaking on behalf of the entire court. Roosevelt’s order was unanimously deemed constitutional. The second case received the same answer: Justice Black said that although the executive order was generally unconstitutional, it was acceptable in times of “emergency and peril.”
About six years later, Congress tried to slip another immoral law into effect. The bill, HR 4908, which was called “An Act to Provide Additional Facilities for the Mediation of Labor Disputes, and for Other Purposes,” passed through Congress and went to President Truman’s desk in 1946. The purpose of this bill was to outlaw strikes and other labor disputes so that production during war would continue steadily. President Truman had actually requested such a bill so that the war could be brought closer to an end, but when he read what they had created, he was shocked. Truman had been looking for a quick end to labor disputes in key production areas during the war, but what he got was a proposed law that would actually prohibit strikes altogether, and the law would not even apply to the certain industries that Truman had wanted to pacify. Instead it would permanently create yet another ineffective bureaucracy that would “mediate” labor disputes. In a reply to the bill on June 11, 1946, President Truman writes, “One of the factors to be considered in judging this bill is whether or not it would have prevented, or shortened, the strikes which have so seriously damaged our economy these last few months. Judged solely from this standpoint, I am sure a fair-minded man would have to admit that it would have failed completely” (Truman). He vetoed it, and Congress did not overturn his veto. They had thought that the wartime status gave them the power to create a law that ruined the labor union system, and Roosevelt thought that it gave him the power to imprison hundreds of thousands of people based on their heritage. But no one learned from World War II either, and the same tradition of regrettable decisions continues.
Marcus Aurelius was definitely correct: in regards to the present, we have repeated all of our mistakes. Although we now face a new kind of war, a War on Terror, the excuses remain the same. On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists’ arms spoke, and immediately our laws seemed to fall silent. The first sign of such problems was called the PATRIOT Act. The PATRIOT Act “allows secret arrests; allows the FBI to obtain bank, credit, library, and Internet search records without informing the subject; permits sneak and peek searches; applies FISA wartime powers to terrorism,” basically allowing the executive branch to do almost anything to prevent any person who may have the slightest chance of being a terrorist from terrorizing our country (tmaertens). Many people all over the nation raised their eyebrows at the establishment of this law, remembering something hidden in the backs of their minds from high school government class: the Fourth Amendment. If they had looked it up, they would have seen that the Fourth Amendment guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, [which] shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized” (Handy, 57). Sure enough, citizens’ rights began to fade away as the president futilely tried to make sure that terrorists were kept in check. “The FBI now sends out 30,000 National Security Letters per year, which give the [government] a backdoor into any personal information they want, without benefit of a warrant” (tmaertens). Then wiretapping was expanded: a government bureaucracy listening to any phone call they wish, trying to find terrorists and arrest them. Bush decided he didn’t need to obtain warrants to search personal records or listen to phone calls, and he defiantly was not “describing the place to be searched” as the Constitution requires.
“Terrorists” are often defined as nothing more than those who hate the government, so any people speaking out against the government can be considered terrorist enough to be arrested under the PATRIOT Act. Christine Nelson wore a Kerry-Edwards pin to a Bush rally and was arrested; another woman, Alice McCabe, was also arrested for holding a “No More War” sign (tmaertens). These arrests, among others, violate the First Amendment’s rights to the “freedom of speech,” in addition to not preventing any type of terrorist attack at all. Actions such as these simply reduce citizens’ rights that were envisioned by our forefathers. Bush’s excuse for the demolition of our rights is not even valid: he cannot simply say he was acting in our self-defense because there is not proof that he has defended us. Are we losing our rights in vain?
War takes our rights away. Both Pompey the Great and Cicero recognized this more than 2,000 years ago and used it to their advantage. Pompey simply unsheathed his sword and the laws evaporated. The Japanese attacked, and we ignored our own values supposedly to defend ourselves. Al-Qaeda attacked us, and again we forgot our history and sacrificed a few laws to stamp out the enemy. Yet if we have already sacrificed our freedoms, who is to say that the terrorists have not already won?
It is a sad fact that Cicero is also famous for another quote from “De Officiis”:“What is morally wrong can never be advantageous, even when it enables you to make some gain that you believe to be to your advantage.” It is wrong to give up our liberties simply to wage a war, even if it seems we are gaining something. The ends do not justify the means. Dissension is inevitable: a fact of human behavior is that different people prefer different solutions to the same problems. War and violence (and therefore the forfeit of our rights) are simply the worst solutions to our dissensions. If our leaders would only look for other solutions, we could have our lives and our liberty. Listen to Ralph Waldo Emerson and his words of simple advice: “Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding.”
Cicero, Marcus Tullius. “De Officiis.” Trans. Walter Miller. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1913.
Cicero, Marcus Tullius. The Speeches. Trans. Watts, N. H. London: Harvard University Press, 1958.
Doughton, Sandi. “Civil rights again teeter as in WWII, speaker says.” Seattle Times. Feb. 10, 2003.
Eagles, Charles W. “Kent State and Jackson State.” The Oxford Companion to United States History. Paul S. Boyer, ed. Oxford University Press 2001.
The Handy Encyclopedia of Useful Information. Ed. Lewis Copeland. Philadelphia: The Blakiston Company, 1946.
Hirabayashi v. United States. OYEZ.
Korematsu v. United States. OYEZ.
Plutarch. “The Life of Pompey.” The Parallel Lives.
tmaertens. “Security vs. Freedom.” My Direct Democracy.
Truman, Harry S. “Veto of the Case Bill.” Truman Presidential Museum and Library.