Recently by Butler Shaffer: It Was a Strange Saturday
Societies can be sunk by the weight of buried ugliness.
~ Daniel Goleman
The Lincoln (NE) JournalStar newspaper has a lengthy article discussing the problems the State of Nebraska is having administering lethal injections to condemned prisoners. The difficulties are related to the apparent shortages and/or quality of one of the three chemicals used to put a prisoner to death, as well as to legal challenges brought against the practice. The title of the article asks "Should Nebraska tweak execution rules?" I have enough to say against capital punishment without confining my objections to the space of an article. What grabbed my attention was this title itself.
If the State of Nebraska is seeking precedent for "tweaking" the rules that prescribe how it is to go about lawfully killing people, it need look no further than the content of what passes for "news" in our world. With the continuing collapse of the pyramidal power structure with which political systems exercise their defining monopoly on the use of violence, governments have had to scramble to reinforce their coercive authority. For a long time, the appetites of the state — along with the corporate interests that direct the political machinery to their ends — have been disguised behind such liberalizing notions as "due process of law," individual "inalienable rights," and more general allusions to such principles as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Beginning in early childhood, schools have inculcated young minds in the alleged virtues of obedience to the centralized authority of the state, without whose continuing supervision, we have been told, would render our lives "nasty, brutish, and short." Lest such teachings be lost in our adult pursuits, the institutional order reinforces them through its varied systems: the entertainment industry, political campaigns and elections, and those supposed organs of information I call the "lockstep media." The distrust of power that might otherwise exist in the minds of even the most gullible, is offset — by the chorus of establishment voices — with assurances that there are inherent limitations on both the range and methods by which state systems act.
The Constitution, we have been told, provides one such restraint upon the state. But it takes little time to discover that words do not carry with them the same meaning as what we use them to describe. The words "reasonable," "general welfare," "common defense," "due process," "probable cause," and the like, do not lend themselves to the demonstrable precisions of thought that we find in mathematics. The proposition "2 + 2 = 4" can be concretely demonstrated to any dullard in a matter of minutes. The content of what legal "process" is "due" an accused individual is another matter, inevitably tied up in the biases, self-interests, fears, and other subjective forces at work within the minds of those who are to decide such matters. In any political system, of course, it is the state itself that makes such determinations. Government officials — be they presidents, senators, judges, or administrative commissioners — will interpret the meaning of all the inherently vague and abstract words under which they act.
Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty expressed this understanding in declaring: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less," to which Alice replied "The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things." Humpty Dumpty's response goes to the essence of the political dilemma regarding words: "The question is, which is to be master — that's all." In far less poetic fashion, I remind people that the Constitution is what keeps the government from doing all of the terrible things that it does!
Our institutional masters desperately react to the decentralization of social systems. The emergence of alternative information systems, such as the Internet, and a growing popular awareness that the political systems under which people are conditioned to subordinate themselves neither serves their interests nor recognizes any limitations upon the exercise of state power. Even those who conduct so-called GOP presidential "debates" have struggled to sanitize the process from any questioning of the continuing need to preserve the status quo. The lockstep media continues to warn us of Ron Paul's candidacy — indeed, if they deign to acknowledge his existence at all — to "pay no attention to that man behind the screen."
Lewis Carroll, George Orwell, Thomas Pynchon, George Carlin, and numerous other thinkers, have advised us of both the power and the danger that reside in words. The Internet is a reminder of the lesson learned from the consequences of Gutenberg's invention of movable type: the free flow of information is a very liberating influence. The Internet — accompanied by technologies such as video cameras, tape-recorders, and cell-phones (particularly those with built-in video cameras) — has diminished the institutional order's erstwhile control of information. Political insistence on criminalizing the private video-recording of police behavior, Hillary Clinton's demands for a "gatekeeper" for the Internet, the persecution of Julian Assange and his Wikileaks system, are just the more visible examples of the establishment's war to preserve its power structures by preserving the ignorance of its subject people.
As the centrifugation of information continues its outward flow, institutional authority over the lives of billions of people will continue to erode. Just as with the rear-guard efforts of post-Gutenberg political systems to restrain the openness of ideas implicit in printing, the modern power structure will be unable to un-invent computer technologies — along with the numerous other information systems that continue to evolve. I watched, the other evening, as one local television camera covered the Los Angeles Police Department descending upon peaceful "Occupy LA" demonstrators, to evict them from allegedly "public" lands. What was encouraging in this was the sight of many men and women, video-cameras or cell-phones in hand, recording and transmitting the event to others, thus preventing the confiscation of what was seen.
The establishment's efforts to maintain its authority over people have already gone beyond the reinterpretation of constitutional language that has long served its interests. The alleged guarantees of individual liberty we were bamboozled into believing were the purpose of the Constitution, were long ago thrown overboard in the interests of consolidating and expanding the powers of the state. Since 1942, the power structure has not seen fit to give attention to the constitutional requirement that only Congress can declare war. It is now enough that an imperial president chooses, from his Rolodex list of countries, to attack whom he will. Governments are now permitted to satisfy the First Amendment liberties of people by confining their speech and assembly to wired cages out of public view. The Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments have long been watered down by the political system, most recently a few days ago when the Senate voted to allow the military to exercise "battlefield" authority over whomever it or the president deems to be an enemy combatant. The policy of allowing torture and/or the assassination of persons considered a threat to American interests was recently announced — with few voices heard in opposition — by President Obama.
Following World War II, a system of "victor's justice" was inaugurated under the name "the Nuremberg trials." The stated purpose of such trials was, foremost, to prosecute persons who had initiated acts of war against other nations. It was, at least in theory, to make the initiation of war such a crime against all of humanity as to justify punishing its fomenters. Intelligent minds were quick to point out that many of the "victors" in this war should also have been indicted for war-crimes (e.g., President Truman for his needless atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with those who orchestrated the bombing of such non-military targets as Dresden, Tokyo, Wurzburg, et. al.) Despite the failure to include all criminals of war, there was a long-held popular sense that the Nuremberg principles stood for something worth embracing.
All of this changed, of course, when — following 9/11 — the United States government decided to get into the war-crimes business by interpreting the word "defense" — what the Nuremberg principles permitted — into the doctrine of "preventive war." George Orwell would have understood this trick at once; the lockstep media and other institutionalists did not dare recognize it. From there, the processes of reinterpretation metastasized: "persons" protected by the Bill of Rights did not include foreigners or "terrorists" (even though a reading of these Amendments contain no such distinctions). The power of Congress to "provide . . . for the general Welfare" could be used to transfer hundreds of billions of dollars to the corporate owners of the state. The "due process" that must precede one's loss of "life, liberty, or property" may consist of nothing more — at least in the minds of at least one GOP presidential candidate — than having some government official secretly select his or her name from a file. Fourth Amendment "protections" against "unreasonable searches and seizures" do not prevent the state from entering and searching your home without your knowledge, and making it a criminal offense for you to tell anyone about this.
On and on go current examples of reinterpreting (i.e., twisting and contorting) fundamental principles so as to achieve the very opposite of their import. The Orwellian notion that "war is peace" keeps most Americans in passive acceptance of governmental policies. The sense that "freedom is slavery" prevents most of us from exercising the responsibility that comes from a condition of self-ownership. And when members of Congress are allowed to profit from "insider" information that would send the rest of us to prison, we are reminded of the Animal Farm premise that "all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."
In our present culture, the aforesaid Nebraska newspaper along with the state government should have no difficulty finding ways to "tweak execution rules" that seemingly stand in the way of the state disposing of members of the criminal class. One could, of course, resort to the reinterpretation (or "tweaking") of the legal or moral principles that have heretofore been thought to constrain governmental action. I hesitate to offer any specific suggestions, fearing that even an unconventional hypothetical might, in this environment, speed up the "process" by which the state of Nebraska could kill a man; thus providing what is "due" him. But if all else fails, perhaps the state can send the names of its condemned prisoners to the White House, allowing the president to select those over whom he — and he alone — presumes the authority to select for assassination.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.