The Rule of Law

Michael Mullane

hide captionMichael Mullane is a law professor and director of the Law School Legal Clinic at the University of Arkansas. He has also worked in private practice in Arizona. Born into a military family, Mullane was a Navy aviator during the Vietnam War.

Courtesy of the University of Arkansas

For the most part, my personal beliefs — or yours for that matter — are not particularly important to society. On the other hand, our beliefs about some things are very important. These are things subject to the Tinkerbell effect — that is, they exist only so long as we believe in them. One of these is the rule of law.

When you get right down to it, the rule of law only exists because enough of us believe in it and insist that everyone, even the non-believers, behave as if it exists. The minute enough of us stop believing, stop insisting that the law protect us all, and that every single one of us is accountable to the law — in that moment, the rule of law will be gone.

So I cling to my belief in the rule of law. It is probably the single greatest achievement of our society. It is our bulwark against both mob rule and the overweening power of the modern state. It is the rule of law that governs us, that protects each one of us when we stand alone against those who disagree with us, or fear us, or do not like us because we are different. It is the strongbox that keeps all our other values safe.

The law is wonderfully strong and terribly fragile. In times of crisis and threat, there is a temptation to stop believing in the rule of law — a temptation to think that it weakens rather than protects us. We have succumbed to this temptation more than once. Within living memory we responded to a sneak attack by interning American citizens because they, or their parents, or their grandparents were from Japan. In retrospect, those actions were not only unjust and morally wrong, they were unnecessary and did nothing to protect us.

The horrific events of 9/11 tempted me to think that interning people without due process might be the thing to do. Maybe we do need to sacrifice personal liberties to be safe, but then I remember that generations of Americans bled and died to create and protect the rule of law, and I wonder: If we ignore it now, how will we ever get it back?

Like Tinkerbell, the rule of law has been seriously injured by doubt. If it is to survive, those who believe in it must stand up and say — I must say — I believe in the rule of law and will not accept its being taken away. I believe that we are not so weak, so impotent, or so frightened that we must give it up or perish. I believe that those few who have harmed us, and who will do so again, are not so powerful that we must abandon the very thing that makes it worth being an American.

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