How America Became a Nation Beyond the Law

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Whether it's the Libyan war, the assassination of bin Laden, or the torture of detainees, the question "Is it legal?" has become pretty much irrelevant, Tom Engelhardt argues at Tomsdispatch. Here's what he means: "If, in a country theoretically organized under the rule of law, wrongdoers are never brought to justice and nobody is held accountable for possibly serious crimes, then you don’t have to be a constitutional law professor to know that its citizens actually exist in a post-legal state." Take torture. Bush lawyers did all sorts of verbal gymnastics to supply a rationale for the administration to "take the gloves off." Just like that, torture became 'enhanced interrogation techniques,' a phrase instantly and effortlessly taken up by the media, and debate shifted from whether they were legal to whether they were effective. "Nothing better illustrates the nature of our post-legal society," writes Engelhardt.  "Anti-torture laws were on the books in this country.  If legality had truly mattered, it would have been beside the point whether torture was an effective way to produce 'actionable intelligence." Obama's response to this, as to other Bush-era excesses – drone attacks, extraordinary rendition, warrantless wiretapping, and on and on – was to urge look "forward, not backward," essentially picking up where Bush left off, and ensuring that no official of any significance has been brought to justice. At the same time, Obama has been in going after whistleblowers, the only people sounding the alarm on executive overreach, with unprecedented ferocity "Welcome to post-legal America," writes Engelhardt. "It's time to stop wondering whether its acts are illegal and start asking: Do you really want to be this 'safe'?"

• 'Dumb Question of the Twenty-first Century: Is It Legal?' [TomDispatch]