“Traitor” in a post-Constitutional era

I put up my comment on Condoleeza Rice last night after a couple of beers. I should watch that, reacting to emotional triggers late at nite after a couple beers has gotten me tossed off of more comment threads on web-sites I care to remember. I will not do that here again!
However, I stand by the substance of my remark. Condoleeza Rice has the right to speak at her trial, should the government ever have the decency to prosecute her properly; and university students have a right to demand that unprosecuted war criminals stay away from their commencement. (Major players of the corrupt Bush II regime have already been found guilty of war crimes by one officially recognized tribunal in Malaysia: http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2012/05/12/bush-convicted-of-war-crimes-in-absentia/.)
Nonetheless, I admit one thing in my post troubled me last night, and continued to trouble me as I awoke this morning – the use of the word “traitor.”
“Traitor” is a word with a troubling history, and it has acquired buckets of befuddling mud in the past few years as it has been widely confiscated by the far right as an appellate for President Obama. The meanings for this particular appellation range from white supremicist (shouldn’t only a white man hold that office?) to suspected intention to infringe on the right to bear arms. The key charge from mainstream Republicans (who don’t use the word, but routinely imply it)is that Obama uses extra-Constitutional methods for changing the very basis of the American way of life – a charge so obviously false and frivolous that in a more reasonable political climate the would be laughed out of office. These same Republicans, after all, defended Bush II’s abuses at every turn, some even claiming in legal memos that the president is above the law.
That assertion raises the real problem with the word. To clarify, I understand that the term “traitor” has two significances. The first is technical and legal – one who acts in a manner treasonous to the government of his/her country of citizenship by aiding and abetting avowed enemies of said country in time of war. But there is a much more generalized significance in the common usage of the word: A “traitor” would be anyone who acted with intent to undermine a serious trust. Thus we might say of a former friend caught sleeping with our spouse that he/she betrayed our trust so seriously that he/she is a traitor to our former friendship. It is this sense of the word that gets tossed about wildly in politics – so wildly in the past few years that the distinction between this significance and the technical, legal significance has become blurred in the minds of many people who should know better.
But this blurring does serve some cathartic purpose. Consider the Roman emperor Nero. Being quasi-divine, he really was held to be above the law. Therefore he could never be considered a “traitor” according to the laws of his own day. But what exactly was he doing when he fiddled while Rome burned?
This notion that a monarch could be above the law – that, indeed, the monarch was identical to the law (“l’etat, c’est moi”) – was passed on through the history of Europe by the Roman Church (since it was so complementary, in the secular realm, to its own identification of its moral authority and institutional power). The principle only really began to fall apart with the beheading of Charles I by Cromwell’s puritans. Since then, the divine right of monarchy – or of any form of government – has eroded to the point of being a non-issue in the West – but it is still assumed in certain Muslim nations; and by certain theocrats in the United States; and by Republican “legal” advisors writing memos to the effect that the president is above the law. Which brings us back to Condoleeza Rice.
Rice undertook her mission to maintain the power of the Bush II presidency, in matters involving illegitimate war and torture, in the context of an administration that considered itself above the law. If we grant that claim – or even if we grant that it is a question for reasonable discussion and decision – then of course we could not consider Rice’s behavior treasonous in any technical or legal sense, even if we should broaden the term to include subversion, insurrection, or other effort to undue the fabric of America’s Constitutional government. But what would it mean to grant such a claim, or even to allow its reasonableness as a position to take in matters of national government? Would it not be to raise the question whether we still have a Constitutional government in America? For there is not only nothing in the Constitution that says or even implies that the Presidency is above the law, the Constitution states quite clearly that it is not, since a president can be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
But unfortunately, that is exactly the position we find ourselves in today – asking whether the Constitution, which seemed to insure a government functioning by law rather than personal whim or institutional power, is any longer the operational standard by which our government functions. Sadly, I must suggest that power of the Constitution has been so eroded over the past 34 years that it is merely nostalgia, or a profoundly cynical hypocrisy, that leads politicians to even pay lip service to it anymore.
And I suppose that’s what I meant last night when I tossed in the word “traitor” in my remarks about Condoleeza Rice. No, Ms. Rice is not a traitor. But the gradual deconstruction of the Constitutional rule of law that has been going on since Reagan – in which members of both parties have participated, and which has been gleefully financed by Wall Street, and heralded by the Pentagon and the intelligence community, and finally ignored by the media (except when it could provide circus during the Obama years) – has been a breach of trust by the ruling class of this country almost as bad as Nero’s fiddlng while Rome burned, but with far more lasting consequences. The Romans could rebuild their city. It is doubtful that Americans will ever get the Constitution back in operation.


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