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How the Magna Carta Became a Minor Carta

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Posted on Jul 24, 2012
maveric2003 (CC BY 2.0)

Text from the Magna Carta.

By Noam Chomsky, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

Slaves, of course, were not persons.  They were in fact three-fifths human under the Constitution, so as to grant their owners greater voting power.  Protection of slavery was no slight concern to the founders: it was one factor leading to the American revolution.  In the 1772 Somerset case, Lord Mansfield determined that slavery is so “odious” that it cannot be tolerated in England, though it continued in British possessions for many years.  American slave-owners could see the handwriting on the wall if the colonies remained under British rule.  And it should be recalled that the slave states, including Virginia, had the greatest power and influence in the colonies.  One can easily appreciate Dr. Johnson’s famous quip that “we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes.”

Post-Civil War amendments extended the concept person to African-Americans, ending slavery.  In theory, at least.  After about a decade of relative freedom, a condition akin to slavery was reintroduced by a North-South compact permitting the effective criminalization of black life.  A black male standing on a street corner could be arrested for vagrancy, or for attempted rape if accused of looking at a white woman the wrong way.  And once imprisoned he had few chances of ever escaping the system of “slavery by another name,” the term used by then-Wall Street Journal bureau chief Douglas Blackmon in an arresting study.

This new version of the “peculiar institution” provided much of the basis for the American industrial revolution, with a perfect work force for the steel industry and mining, along with agricultural production in the famous chain gangs: docile, obedient, no strikes, and no need for employers even to sustain their workers, an improvement over slavery.  The system lasted in large measure until World War II, when free labor was needed for war production.

The postwar boom offered employment.  A black man could get a job in a unionized auto plant, earn a decent salary, buy a house, and maybe send his children to college.  That lasted for about 20 years, until the 1970s, when the economy was radically redesigned on newly dominant neoliberal principles, with rapid growth of financialization and the offshoring of production.  The black population, now largely superfluous, has been recriminalized.

Until Ronald Reagan’s presidency, incarceration in the U.S. was within the spectrum of industrial societies.  By now it is far beyond others.  It targets primarily black males, increasingly also black women and Hispanics, largely guilty of victimless crimes under the fraudulent “drug wars.” Meanwhile, the wealth of African-American families has been virtually obliterated by the latest financial crisis, in no small measure thanks to criminal behavior of financial institutions, with impunity for the perpetrators, now richer than ever.

Looking over the history of African-Americans from the first arrival of slaves almost 500 years ago to the present, they have enjoyed the status of authentic persons for only a few decades.  There is a long way to go to realize the promise of Magna Carta.

Sacred Persons and Undone Process

The post-Civil War fourteenth amendment granted the rights of persons to former slaves, though mostly in theory.  At the same time, it created a new category of persons with rights: corporations.  In fact, almost all the cases brought to the courts under the fourteenth amendment had to do with corporate rights, and by a century ago, they had determined that these collectivist legal fictions, established and sustained by state power, had the full rights of persons of flesh and blood; in fact, far greater rights, thanks to their scale, immortality, and protections of limited liability.  Their rights by now far transcend those of mere humans.  Under the “free trade agreements,” Pacific Rim can, for example, sue El Salvador for seeking to protect the environment; individuals cannot do the same.  General Motors can claim national rights in Mexico.  There is no need to dwell on what would happen if a Mexican demanded national rights in the United States.

Domestically, recent Supreme Court rulings greatly enhance the already enormous political power of corporations and the super-rich, striking further blows against the tottering relics of functioning political democracy.

Meanwhile Magna Carta is under more direct assault.  Recall the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, which barred “imprisonment beyond the seas,” and certainly the far more vicious procedure of imprisonment abroad for the purpose of torture—what is now more politely called “rendition,” as when Tony Blair rendered Libyan dissident Abdel Hakim Belhaj, now a leader of the rebellion, to the mercies of Qaddafi; or when U.S. authorities deported Canadian citizen Maher Arar to his native Syria, for imprisonment and torture, only later conceding that there was never any case against him.  And many others, often through Shannon Airport, leading to courageous protests in Ireland.

The concept of due process has been extended under the Obama administration’s international assassination campaign in a way that renders this core element of the Charter of Liberties (and the Constitution) null and void.  The Justice Department explained that the constitutional guarantee of due process, tracing to Magna Carta, is now satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch alone.  The constitutional lawyer in the White House agreed.  King John might have nodded with satisfaction.

The issue arose after the presidentially ordered assassination-by-drone of Anwar al-Awlaki, accused of inciting jihad in speech, writing, and unspecified actions.  A headline in the New York Times captured the general elite reaction when he was murdered in a drone attack, along with the usual collateral damage.  It read: “The West celebrates a cleric’s death.” Some eyebrows were lifted, however, because he was an American citizen, which raised questions about due process—considered irrelevant when non-citizens are murdered at the whim of the chief executive.  And irrelevant for citizens, too, under Obama administration due-process legal innovations.

Presumption of innocence has also been given a new and useful interpretation.  As the New York Times reported, “Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” So post-assassination determination of innocence maintains the sacred principle of presumption of innocence.

It would be ungracious to recall the Geneva Conventions, the foundation of modern humanitarian law: they bar “the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.”

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