Saturday, February 16, 2008

"Law Is Often But the Tyrant's Will"

Consider Thomas Jefferson's famous definition of individual liberty...

Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.

...while reading about President Bush's intention to veto the Senate ban on waterboarding [bold emphasis mine]:

Earlier, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the president would veto the measure because "the United States needs the ability to interrogate effectively, within the law, captured Al-Qaeda terrorists."

Democratic New York Senator Charles Schumer said that if Bush "vetoes intelligence authorization, he will be voting in favor of waterboarding."

Asked by a reporter if Bush, who leaves office in 2009, would be labeled as the first US president who favored torture, Perino rejected the assertion and dismissed Schumer's argument as "simplistic."

"Across the board people will see, over time, that this was a president who put in place tools to protect the country against terrorists," Perino said.

"The president does not favor torture. The president favors making sure we do all these programs within the law," she said, adding that "all the interrogations that have taken place in this country have been done in a legal way."


Perino said the United States does not currently use waterboarding, a simulated drowning technique denounced by rights groups as torture, even though the CIA has admitted using the technique in the past.

She reiterated the administration's assertion last week that it would not rule out the use of such techniques in the future. "As we said last week as well, we are not going to talk about what may or may not be lawful in the future."

Perhaps unwittingly, Perino gives away the administration's playbook: if the act is illegal, immoral or otherwise unacceptable, presto! Simply change the law - or the legal definition of "torture" - and go about your dirty business.

Jefferson warned of the dangers of equating the law with justice or fairness; indeed, most laws are incompatible with, and outright hostile to, individual liberty. So it's little surprise that Perino's argument, essentially, is: that which is legal may be done with impunity. And who decides what is legal? The executive dictator, his handpicked jurists, and a supine legislature, of course.

Thus the administration deploys legal positivism to justify torture and oppression. But it's legal and for your own protection, citizen.