Thursday, February 7, 2013

A history lesson

(Cross-posted at And Sometimes Tea)

The blogger Magister Christianus, a classical scholar and teacher, is sharing an important history lesson with us today:
So what was this ultimate decree of the senate that caused such confusion and judicial hullabaloo? It was a vaguely worded decree that seemed to give the consuls, the chief executives of the Roman state, unlimited power. It stated, "Consules videant ne quid res publica detrimenti capiat." "Let the consuls see to it that the republic suffer no harm." The problem with this was that, if interpreted to mean the consuls could order the summary execution of citizens, then it seemed to violate a series of laws dating back to the end of the monarchy and the beginning of the republic in 509 B.C., all of which guaranteed a citizen's right to a trial in a capital case.

In the events of 63 and the Catilinarian conspiracy, Cicero tried to get around this by maneuvering the senate into a position to judge Catiline and his followers hostes, or public enemies. A hostis was an enemy outside of Rome who had taken up arms against her. Cicero argued that this was precisely Catiline's state. He had, in fact, stockpiled arms and men in the passes around Etruria and was planning a military strike on Rome. As historians have observed, however, included one Classics graduate student in his Master's thesis, that while it was perfectly legal to kill an enemy combatant, such as Hannibal, the questions still remained as to whether the senate had any judicial authority to pronounce someone as hostis, and even if it did under certain circumstances, whether it could summarily strip a citizen of his rights as a citizen. Could the senate point its finger at a citizen and proclaim, "You are a hostis and as such we can kill you with impunity.

So why the history lesson? A white paper has just been released from the Obama Department of Justice arguing for precisely the same power to be given to the President. Precisely. The difference between President Obama and Cicero (okay, there are vast differences between the two) is that Cicero tried to work within the law. His efforts may be seen as questionable, but he did at least keep up some pretense of democratic process. This is not the case with our President, as Glenn Greenwald's article in The Guardian makes clear. Let's face it. If the ACLU is against President Obama on this one, then you know something is up. The President's efforts to secure this power to himself have been wrapped in secrecy. There is nothing of Cicero's open-floor speeches making the case.
 Read the rest here.

When I read Magister Christianus's post, I was struck by the idea that even back in Roman days, anyone who objected to this vague decree might be met by the hostile question: "What are you saying?  You think it's okay to stand by and twiddle our thumbs and let the Republic come to harm rather than take out our enemies before they can destroy us?"  Which, when you come to think of it, is a question that has an oddly familiar ring.

Torture, drone warfare, giving the President of the United States the power to order the assassination of American citizens without due process--all of these are what happens when liberty and reason are surrendered to a climate of fear and suspicion.  We don't have to doubt the eventual outcome.  We have the lessons of history to show us what happens when people trade liberty for security, and end up with neither.