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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

A Check on Executive Power

(Reprinted from the issue of July 13, 2006)

Capitol Bldg, Washington Watch logo 
for A Check on Executive PowerThe U.S. Supreme Court stirred a fleeting uproar by ruling, in a narrow 5-to-3 decision on narrow grounds, that there are limits on how the Bush administration may try suspected terrorists being held at the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison. But this was far from the “sweeping rebuke” some liberal pundits wishfully called it. Detainees may still be held without charges forever and ever.

wash watch indentTo hear the liberals, you might get the impression that the Court had ordered Gitmo closed down. Nothing of the kind. It merely held ... well, I’m not sure what, exactly.

wash watch indentCertainly the majority (the five usual liberals) didn’t give the administration the unqualified executive authority it claimed. This may be a signal that it, the liberal majority, is at least prepared to limit presidential war-making powers unless they are specifically authorized by Congress. For the first time, the Court has become an active player in the Iraq war.

wash watch indentSince the detainees aren’t prisoners of war in the usual sense — soldiers in the uniforms of a recognized state — the administration argues plausibly that they aren’t protected by the Geneva conventions on POWs. Giving them all individual trials would create a mare’s nest, and the Court didn’t require that.

wash watch indentStill, you have to wonder how many of them were really fighting the U.S. invaders, and how many were just hapless men who were at the wrong place at the wrong time. But nobody is going to try to sort these two categories out, so some of the detainees are just out of luck. None of them will be going home for a while.

wash watch indentAt any rate, for once I am happy to see the Court’s liberals prevail. It isn’t often that they take a stand against claims of executive power.

Fathers and Sons

Ever the party-pooper, North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, upstaged the Fourth of July festivities and the launching of the new American space shuttle by doing a bit of saber-rattling: He test-fired a few missiles and warned that any American aggression will be answered with nuclear weapons. Since the only long-range missile fizzled, the threat seemed no more than Kim’s latest attempt at black comedy.

wash watch indentI guess I’ll just never understand North Korean humor. Is Kim trying to parody President Bush’s bellicosity? Mostly he makes you feel it was a better world back when their fathers were in power; the sons are a pair of loose cannons, scaring people to death around the globe. Both lack their fathers’ gravitas. The old men had their faults, but they never made you feel the end of the world might be just around the corner.

wash watch indentI can’t honestly defend the younger Bush, but at least he provides some amusement. “The Read Joe Sobran's columns the day he writes them!problem with the French,” he has observed, “is that they don’t have a word for ‘entrepreneur.’” He has also remarked that “for a century and a half now, America and Japan have formed one of the great and enduring alliances of modern times.” (Who says Americans have short memories?) And: “Rarely is the question asked, ‘Is our children learning?’”

wash watch indentBut liberals shouldn’t laugh too hard at Bush. True, after an Ivy League education he commits bloopers any high school honor roll student (and most dropouts) would avoid, but liberals should ask themselves a simple question: “Why would most Americans rather be governed by him than by us?”

wash watch indentMaybe an honest answer to that question would teach them a bit of humility.

The Vice of Legislation

Sometimes a simple phrase, used for the hundredth time, can trigger a thought that should have occurred to you the first time. The other day a book reviewer in The Washington Post commented that John Kennedy is popularly rated a great president despite his “lack of major legislative accomplishments.” These five words set me thinking.

wash watch indentIn the first place, I suspect that Kennedy’s enduring popularity is due in large part precisely to his “lack of major legislative accomplishments.” In other words, he left us alone. If it’s legislation you want, Lyndon Johnson was your man; he surely did more to expand the federal government than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Has it made him a fond memory? Hardly.

wash watch indentMore basically, why should we think of legislation as an “accomplishment”? Superfluous laws are burdensome or tyrannical. Law by its nature means obligation. You are forced or forbidden to do what the legislation requires; that is, the moment it passes you are less free than you were before. Moreover, you will be taxed to pay for the enforcement of every law.

wash watch indentWhy should an increase of coercion and a corresponding diminution of liberty be regarded as intrinsically desirable? On the contrary, shouldn’t there be an opposite presumption? Shouldn’t the necessity of compulsion have to be proved in every case?

wash watch indentI never cease to marvel at the inane assumption that we always need more laws, and that making them is an act of beneficence. By now we have so many laws that the real accomplishment would be to repeal most of them, to simplify them, to condense them, and to make it harder to pass new ones.

wash watch indentFor some impenetrable reason, people who are always demanding new laws are called “reformers.” But as Chesterton points out, “It is futile to discuss reform without reference to form.” A gross superabundance of laws is, in fact, the exact opposite of reform.

wash watch indentAs a Roman sage put it, “A corrupt society has many laws.” Civilized society had quite enough laws a long time ago; once you have laws against violence to persons and property, you hardly need more, beyond a few definitions and refinements. But the word “enough” no longer seems to apply to government.

wash watch indentJohn Kennedy may be overrated, but you can easily understand why. He reminds us of a receding age of relative freedom — which means freedom from government.

The Eyes Have It

Your prayers and my guardian angel have worked a miracle. In a few days I will have laser surgery on my eyes, which should take care of the threat to my vision.

wash watch indentI can never adequately thank our Lord, or you, or my angel, for my deliverance from the terror of blindness.

wash watch 
indentIt’s here! Regime Change Begins at Home — a new selection of my Confessions of a Reactionary Utopian — is just off the presses. And we’ll send you a free copy if you subscribe to SOBRANS for one year (at $44.95) or two ($85.00). Call 800-513- 5053 to order by credit card or check, or send payment to P.O. Box 1383, Vienna, VA 22183. If you have not seen my monthly newsletter yet, give my office a call at 800-513-5053 and request a free sample. More details can be found at the Subscription page of my website.

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Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2006 by The Wanderer,
the National Catholic Weekly founded in 1867
Reprinted with permission

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