Glenn Greenwald: who will rescue the rule of law?


Glenn Greenwald is warming up here and whetting my taste for conversation in the Open Source style, in the next couple of weeks. Listen, please, and point directions for our own give-and-take soon. Greenwald and Noam Chomsky were the hottest ticket anywhere near Boston this past weekend, together at the Brattle Theater event, excerpted here, that was sold out (at $5 per) weeks in advance — which was an automatic in the People’s Republic of Cambridge. But these are not marginal men, and their points are not to be marginalized either.

Glenn Greenwald is addressing the erosion — the radical “degradation,” he calls it — of the rule of law: in the high-tech military assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, for example; and more broadly in President Obama’s deliberate choice to “turn the page” on the illegalities of George W. Bush’s war on Iraq. The drone attack on Awlaki, an American citizen, blew away our revered presumption of innocent-till-proven-guilty that was accorded even to the most vicious surviving monsters of the Third Reich at Nuremberg. Our inability to hold our own war record to a universal standard violates another American promise at Nuremberg, that “we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

These were the immortal cadences of Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, opening the American case at Nuremberg in November, 1945, first on the presumption of innocence: “That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.” And further, on the accuser’s vulnerability to judgment ever after: “We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well…”

Glenn Greenwald was rushing from the theater to an airplane on Saturday afternoon, but he’s committed to extending the conversation soon. Will you help us “brief” this one?

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  • nother

    The other night I was strolling around Occupy Boston and a woman came up to me and said you must be new here, you’re much too clean. She introduced herself as Nelly, she’s been there from the beginning. Among other things Nelly told me that the movie Network is often referenced around the camp, especially Howard Beale’s cry “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” It occurs to me that the muckraker Mr. Greenwald is the closest thing we have to a Howard Beale, and Greenwald’s “two-tiered justice system” is a coherent cry that the occupiers can coalesce around (the lack of which is something they are criticized for). The media wants to portray this as poor people bitching about the rich, when it’s really about powerless people facing the powerful.

    Chris, thank you for capturing this talk! Holy moly I had no idea about the “Material Support Law.” Yikes. It’s funny how not too long ago the views of these two men were considered (even by liberals) to be extreme, and now as our country shows itself to be extreme, these two men’s views are now mainstream – we have come to them they did not come to us, and I commend them for that.

    With that said, one question I would ask Mr. Greenwald if I had a chance is: Tell me just ONE thing you think President Obama has done right? I appreciate Mr. Greenwald’s contrarianism (it helps us plant the goalposts), but he could never be a politician (the art of the possible), he could never govern with his views, could he? When I listen to Mr. Greenwald I’m sometimes reminded of the ideologues in the Israel Palestine debate, passion that leads to a stalemate. Yet that’s just a quibble compared to how much appreciation I have for Mr. Greenwald awakening us as a nation to such a reasoned argument for equality (of justice!).

    One more thing I would ask Mr. Greenwald whom I see as a kind Occupy leader, where would he like the movement to go next? I spoke with a couple of organizers down there and they seemed a little fatigued, and they told me that they know they need some more organization. Would Mr. Greenwald like to see leaders come out of this movement? A list of demands? Or should it just be a community that fosters conversation?

  • Potter

    The first disappointment I had with Obama was his decision to not hold the Bush administration accountable for taking us to a “war of choice” in Iraq. (Condi Rice is STILL supporting that decision on her book tour!) Obama said we needed to move on. I thought (and still think) it was a selfish, even a cowardly political decision, not for the good of the country. We needed to say to ourselves –as a country- “we don’t do this”! We were, as David Bromfield says, “out of ourselves”; we were carried away by the 9/11 shock. We still are out of ourselves. (Chomsky I bet would say we have been out of ourselves for a long long time.). Obama has connected himself to Bush in many such ways. It is easy to feel that he is no change but a continuation of the Bush policies.

    Surely those who want to do us harm are going to have more awesome means at their disposal in the future. They will have WMD’s and maybe drones. They may very well be our own citizens. Help us not to lose our country over this, this freedom that we so happily go to war “over there” to preserve. (You hear people still saying this!!) We need desperately to come to terms with our moral and legal principles lest we further distort ourselves into a nation we no longer recognize nor want to identify with.

    How do we do this?

    I kind of assume that a lot of the terrorists that we catch and put away are mentally ill or ne’er do wells, poor souls that could never do much or any harm at all. There is invariably the huge fuss made over them by law enforcement and the media. Maybe I am wrong but I think this local case is one. I think it will go national soon.

    Let’s free John Walker Lindh for heaven’s sake!

    I am remembering the huge fuss over Lackawanna Six

    The Obama administration made a strong case against Al-Alwaki. I wonder how difficult it really would have been to capture him. I believe the decision was made to assassinate because he was deemed an imminent threat and could not be caught. This made it legal. We should not give that a pass so easily. This is an area where we either trust or don’t trust leaders who may have information we do not. The law can be abused so easily given people’s fears and low information, given criticisms of weakness on security coming from hawks. Adhering to moral and legal principles would be a much better way to show strength.

  • Sifta

    There are a few themes that I’d be ninterested on hearing Greenwald’s comments on.

    1. Does he see the origin of the tendency and popularity to transgress due process as an emotional response of fear to 911 or as a more rational (but flawed) shift in policy associated with some tactical goal? Or is it a cowardice that conflates these?

    2. Given that all three branches of the federal government seem to be aligned on things like repealing habeas corpus and other such broad powers and discretion to the executive, including case law backing it up, what is the best case scenario to restoring thr rule of law as he sees it — accepting the premise that justice is now at the discretion of enforcement rather than due process in a number of areas.

    3. What is the role of technology in all of this? One way to look at this is that posting YouTube videos got Awlaki killed in a manner that one would expect that pamphleteering would not have. Of course wikileaks is a relevant example here too. Moreover the ability to remote operate the bullet that fired from North America makes it more possible at least. Is this a matter of the government of figuring out how to respond faster without being barbaric? Or is it a matter of people forcing the government to obey principles like innocent until proved guilty before slipping into fascism?