Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Constitution and the Sermon on the Mount

It had been my plan to write this week on social responsibility. I had some great analogies, too, but after I read this article in the New York Times I decided that I needed to address another issue.

For those that won’t take the time to read the article let me summarize. As we are all aware, in Pres. Bush’s attempts at waging a “war on terror” (can you think of a more ironic term?) numerous prisoners have been taken. The trouble is, once you’ve taken prisoners, what do you do with them? The Bush administration has tried numerous approaches: rendition, Guantanamo Bay, etc. The linked article talks about another approach, similar to rendition: turning prisoners over to the government of Afghanistan, knowing full well that they will get a trial so bad that it wouldn’t pass muster in most third world counties. Many countries (including Great Britain) are refusing to prosecute these prisoners because of lack of evidence. In Afghanistan, these men are being sentenced to more than 20yrs in prison in trials lasting less than an hour (some as short as 10 minutes), with no witnesses (for the prosecution or defense), no chance to prepare or even present a defense and the only evidence is the accusations by the Americans that they are bad men. To call this a farce of justice would be an insult to farces. This is the kind of thing we were raised hearing was done by the communists of the Soviet Union, and that one of the reasons that we were better than them was because we had a justice system that required, among other things, a right to a fair trial.

This is just one more evidence of the Bush administration’s successful attempts to do an end run around the Constitution. Add this to the cynical attempts to redefine torture in such a way that actions (i.e. waterboarding) that the United States has prosecuted as war crimes and torture since the Spanish American War are suddenly not torture any more, thus letting Pres. Bush say, “the United States doesn’t torture,” and not technically be lying. Or the practice of extraordinary rendition, where a person is kidnapped off the streets and shipped with no trial to a country known to practice torture, who is then asked to “assist” in getting information from them. Or the claimed authority to declare a U.S. citizen an enemy combatant and thus refuse them access to the courts to challenge his detainment. Or the fiasco of Guantanamo Bay, holding people for years with out any way for them to contest their detention, and choosing Guantanamo precisely so they could claim that it is beyond the reach of the U.S. courts.

What is the Constitution? Is it a mere set of rules and regulations that we attempt to squirm around, squeezing through every little loophole we can find? Is it a list of highly specific and unrelated rights written by men a long time ago who couldn’t possibly have imagined the problems we face today, and thus at best is only applicable in the exact ways we imagine that they imagined? Or worse, is it simply irrelevant altogether – a quant anachronism from a kinder, simpler, time? When we find it inconvenient do we look for ways to avoid its requirements, simply taking the action it forbids in places beyond its reach?

Or is it a statement of our highest ideas of government, our aspirations, our hopes and dreams, our goals? Is it a coherent document where every part reinforces and informs every other? Should we spend our time looking for ways to live and express the ideals embodied in it in every action that we take, whether or not those actions are explicitly addressed? Should we be finding ways to understand its abstract principles and apply them to new problems? Is it an expression of values or only a short list of restriction on governmental authority, to be gotten around whenever we find them inconvenient?

In what is still one of the most radical sermons ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount, Christ taught “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) If we want to know how to treat prisoners that are captured we should first look to this scripture, and ask how would we want to be treated. Attempts to give a rational answer to this question, when confronted with the immediate prospect of having to follow though with the answer could skew our judgment. Fortunately, we don’t need to make calls like that under that kind of pressure. As a society we have taken the time to answer questions such as, “If I were accused of a crime how would I want to be treated?” It was the answer to this question that lead to many of the provisions of the Constitution (see for example the 5th and 6th amendments.) We have a justice system in-place based on a thoughtful and rational attempt to answer this question; the Military Code of Uniform Conduct is another such statement of values, as is the Geneva Convention. Should we be spending our time trying to wiggle out of these, or looking for ways to uphold them?

We cannot defend our Constitution by looking for ways to avoid its requirements, even if they are technically legal. When we participate, encourage, or are complicit in sham trials such as those used in Afghanistan we declare to the world that we do not believe in what the Constitution stands for. We cannot say “well that’s just the way they do it there,” especially when the people in question were held by the United States, are being prosecuted solely on the basis of U.S. acquisitions, were only turned over to Afghanistan because the evidence was too weak for even the military tribunals at Guantanamo, and are being prosecuted at our request. Like it or not you can’t be ethical, moral, just, or fair on a technicality. Remember the scripture “if you seek, you will find?” If we are looking for ways to avoid the obligations that the constitution places on us (such as is being done by the Bush administration) we will find them. But if we are looking for ways to uphold our principles we can find those too. It is a matter of what we choose to look for. Will we look for ways to do our duty, and show the commitment to justice, integrity, fairness, and human decency that the constitution demands of us, or will we look for ways to avoid that duty, to do whatever we feel we need to? Where should our focus be?

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