Cicero. Lincoln. Cheney?
May 28, 2009
(Cross-posted at Upturned Earth)
Cicero (like Cheney) was faced with a choice: Do I break the law, or do I let Catiline and his friends carry out a coup d’etat? When Cicero saved the republic by breaking the law, he had every reason to believe that he would never face prosecution for his deed. The traditional Roman attitude had been to look the other way when some savior of the city cut legal corners. It was a sign that traditional Roman politics was coming to an end when, a few years after the execution of the Catilinians, a left-wing political enemy of Cicero — a reprobate named Publius Clodius — indicted the ex-consul for the illegal executions and briefly exiled him.
There was a time when Americans were politically savvy enough, like traditional Romans, to look the other way when the nation’s leaders cut legal corners for the good of the republic (think of Lincoln and his unconstitutional suspension of habeas corpus in 1861). But this wisdom has now deserted many of us, in particular those on the American left. Imitating Publius Clodius, they want to prosecute Cheney for protecting America by illegal means.
Insofar as Cicero was violating the law in the name of a broader good, I suppose there’s some common ground between him and Cheney, in that they both did illegal things and succeeded in avoiding prosecution. But that’s a piss poor foundation for a historical analogy, and does little to illustrate the particularities of each case. Consider, for but one example, the motivations behind their actions. Cicero’s overarching concern (beyond saving his own skin) was to ensure the continued power of the Senate and to uphold the internal stability of Rome as a sovereign republic. His opponents were spendthrift profligates with widespread support among the mob and tyrannical undertones to their rhetoric. By contrast, Cheney’s goal was to expand the power of the executive, to validate himself in a war with a foreign enemy, and to destabilize America’s political culture. He spent profligately, courted the mob, and utilized the tools of a tyrant. Eventually, Cicero lost his life (and head) opposing power-hungry would-be emperors. Cheney kept his life. His head now appears on FOX. Two very different outcomes for two very different men.
But setting aside what a terrible analogy this is, the real weak point in Carlin’s argument is his claim that the Romans’ willingness to bend the law shows the strength of their political culture. This gets it completely backwards. That the Senate was willing to grant Cicero exemption was a powerful indicator of their system’s internal weakness, and this lack of legal spine was a key factor in the eventual decline of the Roman Republic. Not incidentally, this was one of the primary lessons the Founding Fathers took away from the history of Rome: make your central legal provisions tough enough (via a written constitution) that they cannot be flouted by the politics of the moment, particularly by an executive with ambitions to empire. So when we demand that Cheney face prosecution for authorizing torture, we are not repeating the mistakes of the Roman. We are recognizing them and correcting them, and in doing so we affirm the best parts of both our histories.