Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Blago Trial and the Bush Doctrine

Some people, for what it’s worth, know even less about the Bush Doctrine than I do. But what I do know about it makes me wonder if its genie is permanently out of the cultural bottle. The Bush Doctrine suggests that it’s appropriate to act preemptively to prevent violence against the national interest. Or something like that. Shoot first, ask questions later. Fire till you see the whites of their eyes. The Obama Doctrine may have reversed this policy in the execution of our foreign relations, but closer to home, the logic of the Bush doctrine seems to be flourishing.

Its outcomes, unfortunately, are not. Last week I read two articles about two separate criminal prosecutions, both of which seem to have been undermined because the authorities acted preemptively. The first is the curious case of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, whose political career has been ruined not so much by his impeachment as by his ineptitude and irrepressible camera-whoring, but whose trial for conspiracy to sell a Senate seat seems destined to end with his acquittal. The jury is still out, but all signs I can see point to a not guilty verdict; the government, the defense argued effectively, has proved nothing.

Blago's case, boiling down to an abuse of power, is irritating but also largely amusing, thanks to the defendant himself. The second case I read about last week is far more serious: Warren Jeffs, who presided over a polygamous wedding between an adult man and an underage girl, was sent to prison during the Bush era but has been relieved of the conviction in the Obama era—not, I hasten to add, because President Obama approves of polygamy and statutory rape (someone will leap to that conclusion, I’m sure) but because the government failed to honor due process and establish the crime of rape (by convicting the man who married the girl) before convicting Jeffs as an accomplice. Thankfully Jeffs can be retried; arguably, since the rapist remains unprosecuted, he will still get off. Maybe the Texans will get him; he’s under investigation there for his own child abuse allegations, and Texas is not so quick to leave the Bush era behind.

The problem with the Bush Doctrine is, as I see it, essentially its immateriality: it sanctions action, often extreme action, before wrongdoing has actually been done. It’s like Minority Report, only instead of having psychics we have hunches, inference, hearsay and arcane legal logistics. Rod Blagojevich was arrested because it was painfully evident he was thisclose to selling then-President-Elect Obama's Senate seat, not because he had actually sold it. Warren Jeffs, meanwhile, is almost certainly overseeing a network that systematically exploits young girls. While I can appreciate the impulse to rush to judgment in either case, in both cases we’re learning the cost of rushing, and in both cases the clearly guilty, it appears, are going free.

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