26 April, 2007

Extraordinary circumstances make for horrible law

This is a basic concept that attorneys, politicians and judges too often make. It is hard to separate law and fact when the facts are so overwhelming that correct application of the law creates serious iniquities. Also newsworthy facts are much like freshly dead zebras - they tend to attract vultures. Minutes after the VT shootings were publicised, gun-rights lobbyists took to the airwaves. Religious nuts swarmed the campus using a terrible tragedy to convert people to their religion (and political ideology). Now days and weeks later, seemingly everyone with an agenda has used the shootings to further their own goals (for a list of what's being blamed, see Cynical-C's blog entry). The vultures by now should be expected, the danger is giving them meat. I favour some gun control, but would hate to see a bill passed in response to the shootings - it is likely to be poorly written and ineffective because it is passed in response to an extraordinary situation, not to ordinary gun violence that could be reduced by gun control (provided that its actually enforced).

Extraordinary situations also are a threat to freedom and democracy. Concepts like freedom and due process seem to be petty in light of horrendeous harm, and it is hard to convince people who are in a state of panic that the liberties that they give up will cause them far greater harm in the long run. Nowhere is this clearer than in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. Fear, panic was overwhelming and we acted in fear and are now paying the price. The PATRIOT ACT which had provisions, carefully inserted by cynics, to dramatically expand executive power was passed with most lawmakers not even reading the bill. The war in Iraq was hardly given scrutiny - they were Muslims, we were afraid - truth didn't matter - the drumbeat of 9/11, 9/11, 9/11 did. Out of fear, we curtailed due process, legitimised torture, started an illegal war based on lies, gave an incompetent president nearly unlimited power, alienated the vast majority of other states and now we pay the price. Our international reputation is shot, corruption and incompetence run rampant, American soldiers and Iraqis die by the thousands in a theatre of war with no clear enemy and no way to win, and misconduct by the executive branch goes unpunished - because after all - we legalised it.

A deep breath and a step back goes a long way. Had we done it after September 11th, we might not be in the mess we are now. Maybe we would have had a comprehensive and effective counter-terrorism strategy. Maybe we would have had the assistance of the global community, so supportive of us before we told them to fuck off. Maybe we wouldn't be worried that the government is tapping our phones and torturing people. Maybe we would have acted rationally - that we will never know, because we acted in fear and this is the product of fear. Good law stands the test of time, bad law leads to disaster, therefore the only logical thing to do is to make good law and this requires thought and strategy, not rash judgments.

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