Imperial Bush brought to heel

Andrew Sullivan

THE full importance of the US Supreme Court’s decision in Hamdan v Rumsfeld took a little time to sink in. Military tribunals to try suspects at Guantanamo Bay were found to be illegal. The administration had breached both US law and the Geneva convention on the treatment of prisoners. The lesson is that even in times of War the US is run not by a president but by a constitution.

The president is not an old-style monarch, empowered in wartime to make up rules as he goes along. He is not the law. He must obey the law, as all citizens must. And in a series of actions and decisions after 9/11, President George W. Bush in effect broke the law, violated his oath of office and pushed the limits of his power beyond the permissible.

Not for the first time, in other words, a King George has been dethroned in the US. This time, though, it wasn’t the British monarch but a president who had almost come to regard himself as a king in a War with no end. The rebels were not colonial tax-avoiders, but the Supreme Court set up more than two centuries ago by the first independent Americans. Tomorrow, Americans will celebrate that moment on July 4. This year, thanks to the court, Independence Day came early.

The US is not in essence a geographical entity. When it was founded, it occupied a fraction of the land it now does. Nor is it defined by an ethnic group or a royal line. Its core is essentially a piece of paper, a written constitution, a formal set of procedures designed, before everything else, to protect individual liberty. At the heart of that liberty is the right to a fair trial and the insistence that nobody - especially not the president - can take that away.

That US Constitution has been tested before. It was tested when Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in the US Civil War. It was tested when Franklin Roosevelt interned thousands of Japanese-American citizens in camps during World War II. It was tested when Richard Nixon turned the presidency into a criminal Conspiracy in Watergate. There was never any doubt that the War launched against the US on September 11, 2001, would test it too. Wars do that, as Lincoln and Roosevelt demonstrate. No War by foreign enemies has implicated the American homeland as profoundly as this one.


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