Magna Carta Tested: Revenging the Legacy of Robin of Loxley

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Robin Hood is, the consensus of historians agree, merely legend. The merry man in the green leotard is an English archetype, a popular creation, expressing the wishes and frustration of the little people ground beneath the boot of a cruel king and oppressive system that permitted no justice for them. While Robin was only a dream, the hero and bearer of the mantle of their hopes and aspirations for justice, the oppression those distant peasants suffered was not fiction.

Under the Feudal system, the king, or his agents, could kick in the door of any peon’s hovel, drag the unfortunate away, and torture and imprison her forever without charge, or tiral. Or, they could simply kill her outright. Neither she nor her family had legal recourse, and any raising objection could expect the same treatment.

This was the reality of life in the twelfth century. And so, around the cook fires and sup tables, a legend of a true and noble knight rising from the forests to waylay the progress of the evil suffered the good and free folk was born; a salve for a bitter and battered people. Robin Hood may never have lived, but the injustice he mythically battled was real.

The unbridled power held in the person of the monarch had become, by the early 13th century, something the Church, feudal Barons, and hoi polloi peasantry, (“stakeholders” in today’s parlance) could no longer countenance. They forced the king’s hand, making John renounce certain crown powers and privilege that the realm could live better in peace through justice. That determination was enshrined in the law of the land in the form of the Magna Carta Libertatum, or Great Charter of Freedoms.

This great charter formed the basis of the English Common Law, becoming the cornerstone of justice throughout the English-speaking world, and beyond. It’s the foundation of a body of laws, still in effect today, whose principle of checking absolute power is universally recognized as a necessary prerequisite for a free and democratic society; it is the principle held in many quarters as the essential, irreducible, and sacrosanct element required to fulfill those aspirations.

But this week past, the American Senate, following meekly the footfalls of the House of Representatives, voted away the fundamental stricture of modern democracy, making null and void the central pretext of the Great Charter, that near millennial document at the heart of western civilization, granting to George W. Bush powers deemed so dangerous and unjust they were taken from King John nearly nine hundred years ago, and refused each and all his successors since.

Worse still than this calamitous occurrence, the vote enabling George W. Bush to both retroactively escape retribution for his myriad crimes against the peace and peoples of the world these terrible past five years, and continue his course unchecked, wasn’t even close. As they have from the moment the pretender president was granted the keys to the kingdom through a crooked court that sanctioned he and his agent’s criminality, the legislators of America have again turned their collective back to justice, refused a place for decency, and told the nation, and greater world, American democracy will not return.

The portent of last week’s vote is not lost on all Americans. Senator Arlen Specter, a republican who co-authored an amendment, ultimately not adopted in last week’s disastrous Bush/McCain Torture bill, that would have protected habeas corpus, the legal lynch-pin of citizen security and liberty, said of the proposed legislation:

“What this bill would do is take our civilization back 900 years.”

Despite this, twelve democrats stood with the administration’s effort to eviscerate Nuremberg, and Geneva, voting to carry the nation back to the pre-Magna Carta days of omnipotent monarchs and their quivering, subject serfs.

Why, after all we’ve seen of George W. Bush’s “vision” of the world, would “democrats” support such a draconian move? The New York Times, hardly a bastion of democratic practice, sums it up neatly as simply politics. On its Op-ed page, The Times opines:

“Here's what happens when this irresponsible Congress railroads a profoundly important bill to serve the mindless politics of a midterm election: The Bush administration uses Republicans' fear of losing their majority to push through ghastly ideas about antiterrorism that will make American troops less safe and do lasting damage to our 217-year-old nation of laws - while actually doing nothing to protect the nation from terrorists. Democrats betray their principles to avoid last-minute attack ads. Our democracy is the big loser.”


That this insidious edict was passed under the pretence it will apply only to “illegal combatants,” and aliens (non-Americans) is, as a closer look reveals, like all else this administration has accomplished, a false comfort: Under this legislation, no-one is spared being subject to the whims of George W. Bush and his agents.

There were many who hoped November’s mid-term elections would shake the system, taking away the majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives, rendering the republicans as lame as their lame-duck president; this, the dream would have it, would prove the first steps in the democrat’s victory in ‘08, and the return of America to a saner place: a world of reality, made strange since George W. Bush’s “victory” in the year 2000. Last week’s vote puts the lie to that wishful scenario: The democrats offer no salvation.

Under this neo-Feudal system, George W. Bush, or his agents, can kick in the door of any peon’s hovel, drag the unfortunate away, and torture and imprison her without charge forever. Or, simply kill her outright. And, neither she nor her family have legal recourse, and any raising objection can expect the same treatment.


Chris Cook is a contributing editor to PEJ News, and host of Gorilla Radio, a weekly public affairs program, broad/webcast from the University of Victoria, Canada. You can check out the GR Blog here.

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