The power to do wrong

Byline: | Category: Culture, Ethics, Government | Posted at: Monday, 2 January 2012

I once heard it that President Lyndon Johnson said that the measure of a bill’s worth was not the good that could result, but the bad that could be done were the same power to fall into the hands of your political opponents.  I don’t know whether or not LBJ really said such a thing, but the idea is certainly true.

It is within this context that President Obama’s signing statement regarding the National Defense Authorization Act should send signals of alarm to Americans of all political stripes: 

“I have the power to detain Americans . . . but I won’t.”

That isn’t exactly what the President said, but it is what he implied when he assured us that “My Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens.” 

It has long been said of America that we are a nation of laws, not men.  The strength of the American system comes not from the notion that we give our leaders the power to do the right thing, but that we deny to our leaders the ability to do the wrong thing.  If you number yourselves among those who console themselves that Barack Obama will not use such an awesome power against Americans, I imagine that you might find some among the Republican field who don’t give you the same fuzzy feeling.  And that is why this is a bad law.  For no terrorist can do as much lasting harm to America as can an American President with the unrestricted power to detain citizens forever.

Related post:  Stop Waiting for Superman 

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