Monday, February 22, 2010


In my recent trip across the American South, we drove through Montgomery, Alabama and past Selma, which to me means only one thing.

People talk a lot about Martin Luther King, Jr., especially when the third Monday in January comes around, but for me, actually seeing one of the places where he marched taught me more than I ever knew before.  Forty-five years have gone by, but Montgomery is still the deepest of the Deep South, and by looking at those fields and breathing that air I knew that, in that place forty-five years ago, demanding black people's right to vote was, essentially, illegal.

My last post was about the importance of the law, but there are some things the law cannot provide for us.  There are in fact some rights that we have to step outside the law in order to attain.  Sometimes it's because the law says one thing, but the people in power say something else.  And sometimes it's because the law, written by the people in power, has not yet caught up to a more universal sense of justice.

I also wanted to say that when you drive through downtown Montgomery, along the MLK Expressway, you will see signs for several tourist attractions, one of them being "The First White House of the Confederacy."  I don't believe that people ever forget.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

There is No Law for Anyone

I get very nervous when I hear someone say, "Those people don't have any rights" or "That person shouldn't get to have a lawyer."  For one thing, everybody has rights. But it goes further than that:

We're talking about terrorists here.  And even if these terrorists get tried in a civilian court, with all the rights and defense lawyers in the world, they'll still be convicted.  Does anyone think they might possibly be acquitted?  No.  That's not why they object to due process in these cases.  It's because they want to show a complete lack of respect for suspected terrorists.  They're not really human, so they don't have human rights. (Incidentally, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to name just one, has been in prison since 2003, and he's not ever getting out.) 

Some people argue that terrorists have stepped outside the rule of law - more so than any other criminals, apparently - and somehow that justifies not applying the law to them.  But in fact the only way to restore law and order is to carry out the law, not to ignore it.  This commenter on Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog put it well:
    Wrapping Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in our Bill of Rights is exactly what we want to do. Because then, when we convict him and execute judgement on him . . . people will understand that he deserved it, that he got what's coming to him. We can be both severe and just at the same time.
    Saying that terrorists ought to be denied normal rights is not just disrespectful to them.  It's disrespectful of the rule of law.  The law should apply to everyone, without exceptions.  Otherwise it's meaningless.

    And in fact, the flip side of "these people are so evil that the law doesn't apply to them" is "these people are so good that the law doesn't apply to them either."  The same people who want to deny terrorists their rights are the people saying that those American Christian missionaries who went to Haiti and attempted to take a bunch of children out of the country illegally "had good intentions" and "didn't do anything wrong."  (Of course, if a group of Muslim missionaries went to Haiti and tried to take children away from their parents, it would be seen as evidence of how evil Islam is.)

    No, in these people's minds the law really doesn't count for anything at all.  It really makes you wonder who they think the legal system does apply to, and how they think it works.