From Law to Lawlessness: Using the Threat of Terrorism as an Excuse to Eradicate Constitutional Safeguards, the Bush Administration Is Laying the Foundation for Tyranny by Putting Itself above the Law. (on the Home Front)

By Grigg, William Norman | The New American, October 7, 2002 | Go to article overview

From Law to Lawlessness: Using the Threat of Terrorism as an Excuse to Eradicate Constitutional Safeguards, the Bush Administration Is Laying the Foundation for Tyranny by Putting Itself above the Law. (on the Home Front)


Grigg, William Norman, The New American


A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt's dramatization of the life and martyrdom of St. Thomas More, timelessly illustrates the value of the rule of law. Serving as Lord Chancellor of England, More, a devout Catholic, provoked the wrath of Henry VIII by refusing to endorse the King's claim that his authority transcended that of the Catholic Church. Condemned as a traitor, More was beheaded at the Tower of London on July 6, 1535. In ]3olt's version of the story, More's betrayal occurred at the hands of Richard Rich, a petty, ambitious man who had sought employment from the Lord Chancellor. His request spurned, Rich took revenge by offering perjured testimony against More.

Shortly after Rich's overture was rejected, More's wife, knowing that Rich was a threat to her husband, turns to him and urges: "Arrest him!" "For what?" More inquires. "He's dangerous!" rejoins More's wife. William Roper, More's son-in-law, agrees: "For all we know, that man's a spy!" More's daughter joins the anxious chorus: "Father, that man's bad!

When More points out that it's God's role to punish "bad" men who have not committed crimes, his exasperated wife exclaims, "While you talk, he's gone!" "And go he should, if he were the Devil himself, until he broke the law!" More replies. "So, now you'd give the Devil the benefit of law!" snorts Roper in disgust. "Yes!" admits More. "What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?" Roper impetuously responds, "Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!"

"Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide ... the laws all being flat?" More asks Roper. "This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's.... And if you cut them down ... do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake."

Giving "the Devil benefit of law" is a principle deeply inscribed in the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition to which Americans are heirs. While it is true that laws exist to punish the guilty, the law's deeper purpose is to restrain the government. Freedom depends on the limitation of government by law. As British philosopher John Locke pointed out in his Second Treatise on Government (1694), slavery consists of being "subject to the incessant, uncertain, arbitrary will of another man," and that "absolute arbitrary power" is the practice of "governing without settled standing laws." Since the chief purpose of law, according to Locke, is to "preserve and enlarge freedom," it must protect the individual against all criminal acts, including those of the government. When an individual's rights are violated, "the injury and the crime is equal, whether committed by the crown or some petty villain." Nor can a majority of the citizenry sanction government to commit criminal, acts, as "nobody can transfer to another more pow er than he has in himself."

From time immemorial, rulers of all varieties, pleading the purity of their own intentions, have insisted that they must be unshackled from the law to protect their subjects from "bad" men, whether foreign enemies or domestic criminals and subversives. But once such rulers succeed in clear-cutting the laws, they create a free-fire zone in which they can make war on their own subjects with impunity. In this way the law becomes perverted. Instead of protecting the rights of the innocent, it becomes a means of protecting the power of the ruling elite.

In England prior to the 17th-century "Glorious Revolution," some English kings claimed the power to declare certain people "outlaws" without trial. But even the most presumptuous European monarch understood that there were limits to his authority. This is not true, however, of modern totalitarian dictators. Soviet dictator Vladimir Lenin, the inventor of the modern totalitarian state, famously declared: "The scientific concept of dictatorship is nothing else but this -- power without limit, resting directly upon force, restrained by no laws, absolutely unrestrained by rules.

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