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Since the publication of The Body in Pain (1985), readers have come to expect from Elaine Scarry relentless honesty and compelling analysis of the most difficult of topics. Her latest book, Rule of Law, Misrule of Men, does not disappoint our expectations. What it does accomplish, and immediately, is an awareness of a certain intellectual cowardice in which many of us have indulged, since the 2008 presidential election ended a most unfortunate chapter in the history of the United States. We recognize ourselves as members of that group of (ordinarily thinking, self-aware and morally concerned) people who were so relieved to close the door on a host of shameful and illegal acts by the country's top leaders that we simply turned away from the unpleasant necessities of prosecuting those leaders for their crimes, once their term of "misrule" was closed.
Scarry drags us back to the scene of the crimes and with the precision of a skilled prize fighter--left jab-right punch, left-right, knock out!--she recalls every sordid detail of the eight years of the Bush-Cheney administration, with its systematic dismantling of civil liberties, its ruthless acts of international and domestic lawbreaking, its violation of military codes of ethical conduct, and its endless stream of shameless lies, as the president and his cronies in crime extended the commander-in-chief clause to amplify executive power--right into the torture chamber. Scarry reminds us that these crimes were not mere snapshots, aberrations in an otherwise glorious era, but they were constantly repeated acts in a pornographic film that looped endlessly before the population's eyes--and before the eyes of the international community--for eight long years. Scarry says it best: "[D]ay after day the country watched coastal waters rise around a stranded population and saw young soldiers sent from home without body armor or vehicle armor and return in coffins that were not allowed to be photographed" (p. xiii).
Many Americans, and indeed many international viewers of this lengthy horror film, were so relieved to finally see the close of this shameless era of American politics that they welcomed President Obama's optimistic messages of "hope" and "change" as an opportunity to make a radical break from the past and start anew, under the leadership of a man, whose decent character was starkly clear from the outset of his campaigns, in his refusal to stoop to the usual truth-twisting and opponent-bashing that has become emblematic of cut-throat, morally-barren American politics. Voters happily closed the door to an ugly history and welcomed the change of view.
So why, the reader wonders as she thumbs the opening pages of Scarry's new book, does Scarry, brave writer that she is, insist on dragging us back to the scene of these discomfiting crimes, as she details fiction after fiction that contributed to the construction of an extra-legal world, where illegal wars, violations of the codes of war, and even torture came to be justified as rightful executive decisions of war, by a president who named himself as an extra-legal agent, not bound by laws or treaties? Why does Scarry make us follow her through every last sordid detail of an era we would rather forget? Her motive is made spartanly clear: a country that tortures when it has a president who believes he has the right to torture and that abstains from torture when it has a president who recognizes torture as prohibited is a country that is not ruled by laws, but ruled according to the whims of its leaders.
The conclusion of Scarry's argument collapse our escapist excuses: until the culprits who committed these gross breaches of international law are prosecuted for their crimes, the country remains under " the rule of men (sic.), rather than the rule of law; for it is allowing its moral fate to be determined by the personal beliefs of its rulers" (p. xx). All members of the international community have no choice but to prosecute the leaders of the Bush-Cheney administration. Prosecution is not optional but obligatory. We are all bound by the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture to bring these criminals to justice. But Americans have the most at stake in failing to live up to their obligations; their country remains under the "misrule of men (sic.)" until they comply with the obligation to prosecute.
Scarry shakes us from our comfortable forgetfulness and demands that the country do the right thing, the just thing, and also the best thing for them--return the United States to the "rule of law" by prosecuting its criminal leaders. Many U.S. towns, courts, houses of government, authors, congressmen, and legal experts have already stepped up and begun the task. The Senate Report on Whether Public Statements Regarding Iraq Were Substantiated by Intelligence Information provides a "devastating document" about the culpable deceptions that led to war (pp. 119-120). Vincent Bugliosi's book, The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder, provides the legal argument for charging the ex-president with murder in any state where a soldier, killed in Iraq, formerly resided (p. 118). Much of the work has already been done. What remains is the public will to see this unpleasant but legally and morally necessary task to its completion.
As discomfiting as this book is, it is a brilliantly documented account of a crucial era of American politics and a devastating argument against closing the book on that era before justice has been served its highest criminals. This book is a must-read for any citizen of conscience, American or cosmopolitan. It would serve well as a text in a moral issues class or a political science class about the contemporary world. I recommend it most highly to all readers.
© 2011 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, Associate Professor, North Carolina A&T State University.
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