Monday, April 14, 2008

Bearing Arms

There’s a move afoot to strip John Yoo, the author of the now infamous 2002 “torture memo” of his tenured position at U of Cal Berekely’s Law School. I would have no problem indicting him as a war criminal, along with the entire top echelon of the Bush administration. Certainly Yoo, at least as much as a low level sad sack like Lynndie England, deserves to have life ruined because of his actions. But I’m not so sure about this tenure thing. First, for the most part I am profoundly indifferent to tenure debates, no doubt because I will never be awarded that academic pearl of great price, and I would rather tend to my sour grapes as an independent scholar and let others worry about on whom and for what this ultimate academic bauble ought to be bestowed or unbestowed. And more importantly, I see academic freedom as something that has protected, and will continue to protect, far more lefties than righties over the years, and taking down John Yoo probably would come with too high a price. Keep your tenure and be damned, I say.

Having come to the defense of Prof. Yoo's job, I must say that I was taken aback by when, on picking up a copy of Daniel Walker Howe’s Pulitzer and Bancroft prize winning history of the US from 1815 to 1848, What Hath God Wrought, and saw John Yoo thanked on the acknowledgement page, it made me far less interested in reading the book. (Like all academics, tenured or untenured, the first thing I read in a scholarly book are the acknowledgements .) There’s no doubt that in the period under consideration by Howe, waterboarding would have been considered a mild punishment indeed for runaway slaves or recalcitrant Indians; John Yoo is just a man born too late. He would have made a fine law clerk for Roger Taney.

Finding Yoo in the Jacksonian era brought to mind something else that has been troubling me; why do almost news reports from our current war speak of “Iraqi militias?” Are these the sort of militias that the authors and ratifiers of the Second Amendment would have recognized? Would Andrew Jackson have approved? Are they the product of a mustering out of all able-bodied adult men by a legitimate authority, or are they simply private armies, a rag tag collection of fighters who either enlisted or were coerced to fight? The rhetorical question answers itself, but the broader question is whether present-day Iraq is the martial utopia envisisoned by defenders of the second amendment, where an armed populace, organized into subordinate military forces, limits the power of the central government, and allows people who consider themselves disadvantaged by current constitutional arrangements to exercise their right to assemble en masse and petition for a redress of grievances and kill a few folks in the process. Bush and his enablers like John Yoo wanted to bring American democracy as they understood it to Iraq, a democracy in which the right of armed self-defense had been elevated to a position of paramount importance. And given what they have wrought in Iraq, to paraphrase Daniel Walker Howe, an armed democracy in which every political battle is also waged on the streets and with the lives of Iraqis, who can say they have not succeeded?

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