If we regard certain recent events as forming a pattern, there is ample cause for alarm. Lately, the American people have been reminded of the fact that our military has engaged in torturing prisoners of war. We have seen that police officers in numerous states have taken it upon themselves to slaughter civilians on the mere suspicion of guilt, or as a reflex response to real or imagined dangers to themselves posed by unarmed teenagers. We have also seen the militarization of the police, where with increasing frequency officers who clearly cannot be entrusted with side-arms are being equipped with assault rifles, tear gas, and armored tanks. Abroad, it has become routine for members of our military to kill individuals merely on the basis of suspicion that they may be involved in terrorist conspiracies, and time and again, the poor judgment of drone operators has caused the death of children, members of wedding parties, and other innocents.
It is important to dig a little deeper into the Founders’
thinking with respect to the connections among brutality in
law enforcement, orders to military personnel to engage in
torturing and murdering innocents, class struggle, and tyranny.
Now, it is obvious that the Founders would have objected to these developments. They saw first-hand the abuse of military power by the British Empire, and crafted a Constitution that enshrined ideals such as the presumption of innocence and due process. Cruel and unusual punishments are explicitly banned. Moreover, the Founders left us with numerous warnings of the dangers inherent in a standing army. Specifically, there is a danger that an armed force can be used to crush political dissent, and the mere existence of this potential will embolden corrupt political leaders to embrace despotic rule.
It is important to dig a little deeper into the Founders’ thinking with respect to the connections among brutality in law enforcement, orders to military personnel to engage in torturing and murdering innocents, class struggle, and tyranny. One tyrant whose name was familiar to the Founders was Draco. The expression “draconian punishment” is an allusion to him. This tyrant had decided to punish nearly every criminal offense with death.
A founder by the name of James Wilson used the example of Draco to argue that in a Republican government where Liberty is honored, punishments ought to be mild. Mr. Wilson wrote, “The laws, which Draco framed for Athens, are said emphatically to have been written in blood. What did they produce? An aggravation of those very calamities, which they were intended to remove.”
Wilson reasoned that the continued application of harsh punishment will, in time, “introduce and diffuse a hardened insensibility among the citizens; and this insensibility, in its turn, gives occasion or pretence to the farther extension and multiplication of those penalties. Thus one degree of severity opens and smooths the way for another, till, at length, under the specious appearance of necessary justice, a system of cruelty is established by law.”
The events in Ferguson, Missouri attest to this fact of human nature. When a police officer killed an unarmed civilian over a trivial offense, this did not inspire the people of Ferguson to respect the law more highly. We saw just the opposite: we saw riots and acts of defiance against the law. Why? Because people who know that their lives are held cheap have nothing to lose, nothing to fear, and nothing to hope for.
Likewise, one defense expert believes that “al-Qaida is gaining strength in Pakistan, is stronger in Iraq than it was three or four years ago and is stronger in Syria than it was a year or two ago (source).” In another article, it is asserted that:
Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants; they are not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of revenge and despair. Robert Grenier, the former head of the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center, has warned that the American drone program in Yemen risks turning the country into a safe haven for Al Qaeda like the tribal areas of Pakistan — “the Arabian equivalent of Waziristan” (source).
It is therefore reasonable to suppose that the so-called War on Terror is intended only to suppress a population that has been taught to hate us. As such, this war cannot end until the United States fails to maintain control. We saw this in the British occupation of India. We saw this in the U.S. occupation of South Vietnam. We are seeing this in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a lesson that the Roman Empire learned millennia ago.
Returning to James Wilson’s argument against draconian law, “Such a system is calculated to eradicate all the manly sentiments of the soul, and to substitute, in their place, dispositions of the most depraved and degrading kind. It is the parent of pusillanimity. A nation broke to [willing to exercise] cruel punishments becomes dastardly and contemptible. For, in nations, as well as individuals, cruelty is always attended by cowardice. It is the parent of slavery. In every government, we find the genius of freedom depressed in proportion to the sanguinary spirit of the laws. It is hostile to the prosperity of nations, as well as to the dignity and virtue of men.”
Wilson’s insight appears to describe the current situation we face in the United States. And, in closing, it is of particular interest to see what that great historian Plutarch had to say about the political situation that led to Draco’s ascendency:
At that time … the disparity between the rich and the poor had culminated, as it were, and the city was in an altogether perilous condition; it seemed as if the only way to settle its disorders and stop its turmoils was to establish a tyranny. All the common people were in debt to the rich. For they either tilled their lands for them, paying them a sixth of the increase … or else they pledged their persons for debts and could be seized by their creditors, some becoming slaves at home, and others being sold into foreign countries (source).
And it also bears noting that Solon, who replaced Draco with the charge of correcting his predecessor's excesses, immediately granted mortgage amnesty, to eliminate the serfdom of the many at the hands of the few. Today, we still associate the name "Solon" with wisdom.