In my History of the Modern World course, I have begun to address the evolution of law and political rights in the decades before the revolutions in the Americas and France. As part of a lecture on Locke and Rousseau, I show a clip from Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. While historically anachronistic, the film does have an excellent exchange over how to apply the rule of law. In the scene, Thomas More confronts his family when they demand he arrest Richard Rich on the very reasonable suspicion that Rich intends to do imminent harm to Moore. You all know the story, here is the scene: Devil Benefit of Law
What makes the scene so interesting is that students often don’t quite know which aspect to focus on–is it giving the Devil the benefit of law; or More’s distinction between “man’s laws” and “God’s laws”; or the obvious respect More has in this scene for the idea of law?
The conversation in my class perhaps inevitably led to addressing the Senate’s confirmation hearing of John Brennan as President Obama’s director of the CIA. When reading about Brennan’s case for the Obama Administration’s drone policy, I asked the students to consider how the questions raised in the film clip might lead them to ask questions about the use of drones, especially in light of the killing of an American citizen without due process. We wondered, collectively, whether Brennan had become somewhat like William Roper, Moore’s son-in-law in the scene, who would cut down every law in England to get after the Devil. To which Moore retorts that cutting down the laws for such “noble” intentions will, in the long run, eliminate protection for everyone–no matter how noble.
That line of reasoning echoes Tom Engelhardt’s essay at HNN. In his conclusion and nearly in exasperation, Engelhardt argues:
“The drone strikes, after all, are perfectly ‘legal.’ How do we know? Because the administration which produced that 50-page document (and similar memos) assures us that it’s so, even if they don’t care to fully reveal their reasoning, and because, truth be told, on such matters they can do whatever they want to do. It’s legal because they’ve increasingly become the ones who define legality.”
“It would, of course, be illegal for Canadians, Pakistanis, or Iranians to fly missile-armed drones over Minneapolis or New York, no less take out their versions of bad guys in the process. That would, among other things, be a breach of American sovereignty. The U.S. can, however, do more or less what it wants when and where it wants. The reason: it has established, to the satisfaction of our national security managers — and they have the secret legal documents (written by themselves) to prove it — that U.S. drones can cross national boundaries just about anywhere if the bad guys are, in their opinion, bad enough. And that’s ‘the law’!”
In the end, my students and I wondered if Brennan had become our contemporary Roper, claiming to act for the benefit of the people by using “God’s laws” (or in this case, a civil religious version of them) to get after our modern version of the Devil. Not surprisingly the students wanted to know where our Thomas Moore was. I suggested that “he” exists in the Senate hearings and the work being done by news outlets such as the Washington Post. I am interested to learn who else and where else we should look for analysis of the legal implications of the drone policy and perhaps how to contextualize the debate over it.