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Bill Maxwell

In times of crisis, rule of law steadies the nation

Because Americans fundamentally are a people more alike than different, the recent massacre of the innocent in Tucson shocked most of us. It will leave us with a defining memory of the senseless loss.

We will carry on with our lives despite the combustive politics raging around us, the very politics that may have somehow pushed the very disturbed shooter to act. Unlike people in many other nations where similar tragedies occur, we do not fall apart even though our sense of well-being and our unique American ethos have been breached by one of our own, this time by an apparent madman.

It is not in our nature to commit widespread, organized acts of revenge. We are prepared to let justice take its course.

Since my undergraduate days of reading the likes of Alexis de Tocqueville, Frederic Jackson Turner, William Whyte, Margaret Mead, Carl Becker and Gordon Allport, who wrote about the mythic "American character," I have tried to understand the forces that give the United States the ability to maintain basic calm following homegrown, politically motivated atrocities.

In the same way, I have tried to understand our ability to maintain the peace when we have a change of top leadership. How could Barack Obama replace George W. Bush so seamlessly? As Americans, most of us take the transfer of power for granted. I do not. It is emblematic of what makes us who we are even with our many ethnicities and religious faiths. It manifests the taproot of our national character.

During a weekly commentary in January 2009, leading up to Obama's inauguration, CBS Evening News chief Washington correspondent and Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer, said: "As it has been from the beginning, the old president will go and the new president will arrive for no other reason than that it is the expressed will of the American people which is at once our greatest strength and the core principle on which America came to be."

I am convinced that the "core principle," which also accounts for our resilience in the face of domestic atrocity, is our unblinking commitment to the concept and the practice of the rule of law. For the rule of law to prevail, argues Ronald Cass, dean emeritus, Boston University School of Law, there must be the elements of consistency, predictability, rules from valid authority and transparency of the law.

These elements are underpinned by the U.S. Constitution.

"The nature of the judicial system is critical to the rule of law," Cass writes. "Impartial judges, governed by clear legal rules, committed to enforcing the rules as written, independent of political influence are essential if law is to be a reliable guide to individuals and a constraint on those in power."

The rule of law works because while the judicial system circumscribes activity, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights and state constitutions and their bill of rights limit the power of government over the individual.

"The one right, above all others, that makes the rule of law work is the 'freedom of speech,' " according to Rule of Law in the United States, an online publication. "The ability to speak one's mind, to challenge the political orthodoxies of the times, and to criticize the policies of the government without fear of recrimination by the state are the things that are the essential distinction between life in a free country and a dictatorship."

I volunteer for the International Council of the Tampa Bay Region, an affiliate of the U.S. State Department that brings hundreds of foreign visitors from around the world to our area each year. These visitors include politicians, educators, diplomats, law enforcement officials, journalists and scientists. Some of our guests tell us they are astounded by the freedoms Americans enjoy. Whenever I am asked to discuss the sources of our freedoms, I always have the same answer: our commitment to the rule of law and our willingness to reach consensus, often a messy process, for the greater good.

I told one Middle East visitor that freedom of speech in America does not include the freedom to gun down or otherwise physically attack our fellow citizens because we disagree with them.

As we condemn the horror of Tucson, the sane among us, which is the majority, will grow from it just as we grew from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. We have a system that provides for a fair trial for the alleged shooter. We will remember, and we will gain an even deeper appreciation for the rule of law.

In times of crisis, rule of law steadies the nation 01/21/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 21, 2011 5:29pm]
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