Monday, May 4, 2009

Protecting Bush's "Vigilante Justice" Erodes Confidence in The Rule of Law

1940 Street Scene with vintage automobiles and American flags

I watched an old movie last night called Fury that reminded me so much of the events that have transpired in our country since 9/11.  The movie Fury was made in 1936, and it starred Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sydney.

The movie is about a man (Spencer Tracy) who is wrongfully detained by the police on the suspicion that he is part of a group that kidnapped a local towns person. The news about one of the kidnappers being held in the local jail spreads through the town like wildfire. After a group of townspeople get themselves worked up into a frenzy over the crime they head down to the jail to take their revenge. The Sheriff hearing that a mob is forming gets assurances from the Governor that the National Guard will be sent to help protect Tracy. But a political adviser to the governor convinces him not to send the Guard for political reasons. When the mob arrives at the jail the sheriff tells them that he doesn't know if Tracy is guilty or innocent and that they have to let the law take it's course. His call for following the rule of law is shouted down by the mob. 

The mob ends up taking their revenge for the kidnapping by burning down the jail where Tracy is being held. When news of what the mob did reaches the Governor he and his political adviser have this conversation:

Governor: Why the very spirit of government has been violated, the state disgraced in the eyes of the world by this brutal outburst of lust for vengeance and I blame myself. I let you talk me down. Why that mob could have been stopped if assistance had been sent to local officers in time. 

AdviserAh forget it, the reformers will cuss around for awhile and then they'll start cussing something else. These letters and telegrams backing up the statement I gave out ... congratulations 90% of them - (reads from telegrams) Finest things we've heard of in years - Congratulations. 

Governor: I wonder what sort of telegrams we'll get when it's know that Wilson was an innocent man 

Adviser: When I gave out the statement I didn't know that

Governor: This story is in every wire in the world right now....he then shows him the newspaper headline: Kidnappers Caught; Confess - G-men nab whole gang.


Unbeknownst to anyone, Tracy actually escaped from the blaze, but he's bitter about what happened to him so he seeks his own revenge by letting everyone continue to believe that he died so that the mob who tried to kill him would pay for what they did. 

The next part of the movie deals with the investigation and cover up of the crime.

When the DA tries to bring charges against the guilty, the town closes ranks to protect it's own. Political pressure from the Governors advisor also comes down upon the DA to forget about the case. But the DA is having none of it. In one scene he says:

I've got to proceed with this case as my oath of office requires.

In his opening statement the DA then  makes these comments:

Because the law declares that in a lynching all who consent to the design are responsible for what took place all who participate are responsible for the act. This may seem harsh but when a mob takes it upon itself to identify, try, condemn and punish it is a destroyer of the government that patriots have died to establish and defend. Every decent person in this country feels the importance of this case the nation is hanging on the outcome of this trial. No lynching can be justified though sometimes attempts are made to whitewash them by citing the confessions of or proofs of guilt against the by now silent corpse. But no one can dare defend the lynching of an innocent man, American democracy and its system of fair play for the rights of individuals under the law is on trial here ladies and gentleman of the jury. 

During the trial, witnesses lie about where the various defendants were at the time of the crime, in order to protect them because they are friends and family.  After they give their testimony the DA warns them that they will be charged with perjury because the evidence he has will show that their testimony is a lie. 

The DA’s evidence is a newsreel that captured the entire event on film.

When the jury sees the irrefutable evidence they convict the guilty. At this moment Tracy walks into the Court room to show that he is still alive, not to protect the guilty townspeople who tried to murder him, but so that he could live with himself and not let his own desire for vengeance destroy him like it did the townspeople.

Now look at how so many of the things in this fictional story from 1936 mirror what we've witnessed happening in the Bush era torture story.

When we were attacked on 9/11 most of our citizens wanted to get the people responsible for the attack. They wanted our government to do whatever it took to get the bad guys. They wanted revenge. But some of our citizens, including a lot of them in the establishment media, didn't just want to use every available legal method to get the bad guys, like the rest of us wanted. These people were so consumed by a desire for vengeance that they also supported what Dick Cheney called going to the “dark side.”  One of our national columnists even admitted recently that he still wants vengeance for 9/11. And there are other media personalities, as well, who demonstrate even now that their own thirst for blood has still not been sated by the events of the last 8 years.

Because a certain percentage of the people in our country had an all consuming desire for revenge they fully embraced our government's vigilante justice just like the townspeople in the movie embraced their own vigilante justice. And like a lot of the townspeople in the movie they either actively cheered on the lawbreakers, or they looked the other way while the crimes were committed. 

The political advisor in the movie that encouraged the Governor to make the wrong decision based upon political considerations behaved like many of our own political leaders who chose for political reasons to either remain silent or actively codify the Bush administration's illegal behavior into law. Even today a lot of these politicians are still letting politics interfere with them making a proper response on this issue.

When those of us who did not embrace this mob mentality challenged the illegal behavior we were called unpatriotic by the mob and its supporters, just like the sheriff in the movie was shouted down for defending the rule of law. Most of our establishment media also drowned out our concerns about the rule of law by uncritically repeating the administration's claims that it was only "a few bad apples" who tortured our prisoners and that those who claimed otherwise were using this as a poltiical tool to damage the presidents chance for re-election. As I recently pointed out, despite this pro-Bush administration narrative uncritically reported in our media (especially TV), we have some in our establishment media today who claim that the public was well informed about torture prior to the 2004 election. Daniel Froomkin also addresses this faulty claim in his blog column today.

As more and more evidence was revealed about the horrendous crimes that were committed by the Bush administration those who had never supported this lawless behavior continued to challenge it but our media establishment closed ranks, just like the townspeople in the movie. They began accusing us of being liberal score-settlers or saying that we just wanted to take revenge because we hated Bush. They refused to admit that a lot of their fellow citizens hadn't gotten caught up in the hysteria of the moment, like they did when they let their hunger for vengeance cloud their thinking. They pretended that it wasn’t the rule of law that we were trying to protect and accused us of just wanting vengeance.  What’s so ironic about them accusing us of wanting vengeance is that it was vengeance that caused them and not us to support our government’s vigilante justice campaign in the first place. And just like the townspeople in the movie, they are now willing to lie and obfuscate the truth in order to protect their own. 

Those of us who consistently stood up for the rule of law hope that our legal system, like the one in the movie, will finally step in and let the evidence of these crimes determine the fate of these officials, who thought they could replace the rule of law with vigilante justice. Maybe then those who enabled this mob mentality to run wild will finally face up to their own role and will stop trying to defend the indefensible. Maybe then they will understand the importance of what the DA in the movie said when he said these words about holding people accountable for their deeds:

This may seem harsh but when a mob takes it upon itself to identify, try, condemn and punish it is a destroyer of the government that patriots have died to establish and defend

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