When I practiced law in Mississippi, it often seemed that cases moved much too slowly. Due process is tedious. Whether in civil or criminal matters, it takes time to carefully collect the evidence and ensure that all sides are fairly represented. It was not uncommon for a case to take several years from start to finish.
Due process seems slow and tedious, until one considers the alternative. Since Sept. 11, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in extra-judicial practices - detaining persons without bringing charges; torturing detainees to extract information or confessions; and executing persons on the spot, which now appears to be what happened in Haditha, Iraq.
Prison practices at Guantanamo Bay (Cuba) and Abu Ghraib (Iraq) are the most poignant images of what's wrong with extra-judicial processes. In many cases, guards and military police have taken the law into their own hands rather than following time-honored basic protections for persons being held in custody.
The Geneva Conventions - to which the United States is a party - state clearly that persons detained in times of war "shall in all circumstances be treated humanely." They prohibit "cruel treatment and torture . . . (and) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment…" (Article 3).
But if the nation is at war and people are threatening U.S. security, what's wrong with playing rough? After all, some of the people being held are probably guilty.
Initially, the Bush administration argued that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to detainees from the "war on terror." The administration has since backed away from that argument, while continuing to skate at its very edges.
Why is it critical that the United States and other nations abide by the rule of law?
First, the rule of law protects innocent people. New Testament writers note that governments exist to reward good conduct and punish wrongdoers (Romans 13:1-4, I Peter 2:13-14). While far from perfect, judicial processes provide an orderly way to weigh a person's conduct against well-established standards of the law. Even in the Old Testament, two or three witnesses were required to levy the most severe punishments (Deuteronomy 17:6).
True, such high standards may mean that some guilty persons go free. But they also prevent innocents from being unjustly punished - as is increasingly the case in the U.S. "war on terror."
Second, the rule of law restores a sense of order. Proper police work and carefully designed judicial processes create a sense of decorum, solemnity and fairness. Extra-judicial practices and punishments, on the other hand, inflame passions, create chaos and lead to more violence.
While police in the United States are usually required to obtain search warrants before entering a home, U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan frequently make late-night raids - often barging in on innocent civilians and violating the sense of honor in Muslim cultures. Broad sweeps result in detaining thousands of innocent people, many of whom turn sour against their captors.
It's hard to imagine that Americans would tolerate sweeping arrests and excessive use of force to capture a violent criminal in the United States. Why would Iraqis or Afghans feel any differently?
Finally, you can't teach what you don't practice. Laudably, the Bush administration wants to encourage democracy around the world. But it's impossible to teach respect for democratic principles and the rule of law, if they are not modeled - even in the most difficult of times.