Friday, July 04, 2008

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

One of the hallmarks of the Roman Empire was Roman citizenship. Citizens of Rome had certain legal rights, were entitled to a certain amount of respect, if only in the manner of their execution. Non-citizens were non-persons, and could be extinguished as casually as one would kill a cockroach. The most famous case in human history is the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, an execution probably ordered by Pilate with as little consideration or afterthought as today we would give to stepping on a roach on the kitchen floor.

I mention this because we are, today, Rome; or at least we act like it. It has been mentioned often enough to have taken on the cast of the commonplace that people around the world are very interested in who the next President of the United States will be. They don't have a vote, but they very much have an interest. The British had colonies that spanned the globe in the 19th century; today America has military bases. And based on the idea of jurisdiction and where it extends, we decide whether or not the laws of our land extend to non-American citizens. And if they don't, then what constrains the President? What ban is there on extraordinary rendition, "black" prisons, even prison ships? But if they do, on what basis do we make such an extraordinary assertion? The limitations on government power have always been understood to be recognized when they are raised by persons with standing to make a complaint. But such persons have always been American citizens. If they are not American citizens, should they have standing to complain of U.S. actions in foreign countries? Should not only those who are victims of "black ops" get to complain, but those who are victims of the invasion of Iraq? What of the citizens of Iran, where covert US operations are already underway? What of the citizens of Central America, who suffered under the students of the School of the Americas, in Georgia?

But if they can't, are they non-persons? Are they simply, by dint of citizenship in another country, "out-law" in the old British legal sense of the word: persons outside the protection of the law, and so subject to whatever anyone does to them, if that "anyone" is working on behalf of the US government? Is this what our standing armies, our national security apparatus, is for? Is this the true legacy of the "Greatest Generation"?

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