Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Law and Order

From Josh Gerstein at the New York Sun:

"An alleged Hamas operative is likely to be among the first criminal defendants to try to capitalize on President Bush's commutation of the 2 1/2 year prison sentence imposed on a former White House aide, I. Lewis Libby Jr., for obstructing a CIA leak investigation.

Mohammed Salah, 57, is scheduled to be sentenced by a federal judge in Chicago next week on one count of obstruction of justice. In February, a jury convicted Salah and a co-defendant, Abdelhaleem Ashqar, of obstruction, but acquitted the pair of a far more serious charge of racketeering conspiracy in support of Hamas's terrorist campaigns in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank.

"What the president said about Mr. Libby applies in spades to the case of Mohammed Salah," Salah's defense attorney, Michael Deutsch, told The New York Sun yesterday. "We'll definitely be bringing it up to the judge. … It's going to be a real test, a first early test of whether we're a nation of laws or a nation of men."

Our Founders knew it, but most Americans apparently haven't figured it out: when you start exempting people from the rule of law because they're well-connected, or rich, or belong to the right race or class, you undermine respect for the law across the board. And (as we're seeing in the federal attorney firing scandal, which has already led to defendants making claims that they're being prosecuted for political reasons) it works the other way, too: when you start using prosecutor's offices to enforce a partisan agenda or punish your political enemies, you reinforce the belief that the law is nothing more than just another political tool.

We are just now beginning to reckon with the ways in which six years of indiscriminate, flagrant law-breaking at the highest levels of government have frayed the very idea of "a government of laws" to the point where it's becoming a real issue on our judicial benches. Salah may be the first -- but he will be by no means the last -- person to invoke the Libby pardon as a precedent mandating his own release. "Scooter didn't do any time -- why should I?" may well become a national rallying cry for anyone who finds himself on the wrong side of the law. And we will have no one but Shrub to blame when other voices add themselves to the chorus of people arguing for leniency in the courts:

-- Police arguing that their brutality toward citizens should be overlooked, since it has a legal precedent in Abu Ghraib and the other prisons in the American gulag.

-- Politicians of all stripes arguing that it matters not at all that they're on the payroll of a government contractor while approving contract payouts to that same contractor. After all, our only Vice President has done this for the past six years.

-- Public leaders from city councils on up pointing to the Bush Administration's opaque treatment of public information as a precedent that should close the curtains on all existing sunshine laws. (And, right behind them, bureaucrats refusing Freedom of Information Act requests on the same basis.) If Powell can lie to the UN and Bush can lie to Congress, what's to keep anyone in government from lying about anything?

-- Multinational businessses arguing that Congress' failure to hold Bush to the letter of the Geneva Conventions -- a treaty approved by Congress, and thus a bona fide law of the land -- absolves them from being restrained by any other law passed by Congress. From this point on, "laws" will only be "suggestions." If Congress doesn't mean it when they say, "Don't torture. We're not kidding," then why should anyone believe them when they say anything else?

The upper classes of this country have been quietly dismantling the sturdy wall of law that supports our civilization, brick by brick, for quite a while now. It's been 18 years since Leona Helmsley proclaimed that "only little people pay taxes," blithely putting the little people on notice that some Americans already considered themselves beyond the reach of the law. It's ironic (but no longer surprising) that the party in charge of this demolition effort hid their dead-of-night deconstructions behind the banner of "law and order." By now, it's just another depressing example of conservative projection in action.

But with the Libby pardon, we've shifted into a new gear -- one where we're starting to see what the breakdown of law and order looks like in its middle stages, when enforcement of the law becomes an almost random event, and contempt for the law becomes universally accepted as a cultural value. After that, chaos quickly follows, leaving a vacuum which dictators invariably rise to fill, with the support of people who are desperate for a return to order. The momentum has built to the next stage; turning back from this point now will be much harder.

The casual lawlessness of the Bushistas is has pulled us toward a time when anyone who relies on the law and the courts to protect liberty or property is a sucker. We're already mostly there. And we ought not underestimate the effort it's going to take to find our way back.