Snow Falling on Laws

Snow falling again – the second time in a week. It hasn’t been much snow, but it’s bitter cold as well, so no picnic blowing it off the walks and driveway. I’ve been battling some bizarre illness the last few weeks, which has me very tired and lazy, and so I haven’t done as good a job on it as usual. I tromp out there in the evening and blow off the cement, but it keeps snowing, so there’s a new thin layer there by morning. And no way am I going out there in the dark of morning to blow snow. I see my neighbor out there plowing away, doing his duty as I’m guiltily pulling my car out into the uncleared mess, smashing down the snow on my driveway into ice and leaving the pedestrians to the whims of fate on my snowy sidewalk. But It’s just not in me. I hate that morning cold.

What I’ve been thinking about is the idea of decisions a society makes–or fails to make–as it stands on a threshold between what it was and what it will become. We have a few of these flitting around lately, mostly involving the rule of law versus the chaos of human nature. And no, it’s not clear which is better.

In fact human nature was all we went by for millennia, and for sure it resulted in some major atrocities. But after several hundred years of societies supposedly founded on laws, the atrocities continue. War itself is like a “time out” from lawful rule. Normally, it’s a big no-no to slaughter children. Individuals who do it are “monsters” whom we routinely put to death. But we, the U.S., a force for good in the world, now routinely launch weapons into our proxy “battleground” countries (Afghanistan, Iraq) that we know will kill innocent children. The only difference is we’re not intentionally targeting them. But it doesn’t change the knowledge that it will happen. And it’s OK because it’s war. And in war there are unforeseen casualties and, that most meaningless of euphemisms, “collateral damage.”

So people like me have to qualify an idea like “rule of law” with an undeniable knowledge that the rules are routinely broken by states that find them inconvenient. It is argued in high circles that nations retain an “escape clause” from codified laws–such as those prohibiting mass homicide–when they find it necessary to act to protect their own existence. In other words, in self defense. So each act of belligerence these days is carefully couched in the rhetoric of defense–we are merely defending, if not our actual sovereign land, then “threats” to our safety or our “vital interests” in other lands. We now launch unprovoked attacks that we know will kill innocents by the hundreds, if not thousands, because someone in those lands “might” be plotting something against us.

We decide to be a nation of laws, and this is perceived as a good thing. Because the high emotions of the lynch mob or the oppressive majority are supposedly held in check by a code of allowed and proscribed behavior, we can say we have an orderly society. But I submit that we have stretched the “escape clause” definition to an extent that ambition, or thirst for power or revenge, or mere political gamesmanship are too easily masked as “defensive” grounds for mass killings of the world’s surplus people–whose only fault is that they were born in backward countries, in chaotic times, in a world devoid of the rule of law.

We need to define our nation’s acts as they are actually wrought, so that we might embrace our future as a nation of warmongers, or reject it and pursue another course.

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