Today, June 15, marks the 796th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta by King John of England on Runymede Island. There is a simplified version of what the Carta accomplished on a site for kids, with a little cute snark:
The Magna Carta was a list of rights. Most rights were already law. The Magna Carta restated them so there would be no confusion. The Magna Carta added new rights. One of the new rights was that nobles could keep watch over the king. They could seize his castles if he did not keep his word.
Some historians say that after signing the Magna Carta, King John went home in a huff, and screamed, and rolled around on the floor like a madman. Perhaps he did. But it did not matter. From that day on, things changed in England forever. The king could no longer do whatever he wanted. He had to obey the law, just like everyone else. If he did not, his nobles could seize his lands and banish him from England.
One of the important rights provisions of the Carta was the legal concept of Habeas Corpus, Articles 38 and 39:
38 In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.
39 No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.
In the land of England, Habeas Corpus had ancient, sturdy Anglo-Saxon roots. It was a brilliantly ironic stroke to foist these old laws of the land upon the descendants of the Norman usurper, William the Bastard, whose great-great-grandson John held the crown and almost all the power of England, acquainting the bastard's descendant with an ancient tradition of freedom of possibly a thousand years of standing or more.
This hallowed old tradition was written into the U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 9, Clause 2:
Clause 2: The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.
And so it stood as a law of our land, until September 28, 2006, when under the hand of George W. Bush and his gang of thugs, despite their antipathy to France and persons of French heritage, they signed and signed onto the Patriot Act as the agents of our own Norman Conquest.
Other far more modern legal concepts were nullified on Sept. 28 of that year by the radically new and broad definition of the term "enemy combatant."
Because of Bush's actions, U.S. Presidents can now freely designate legal residents of the United States, as well as foreign citizens living in their own countries, as "enemy combatants" subject to summary arrest and indefinite detention with no hope of appeal.
President Obama has done nothing to restore Habeas Corpus.
On this day of remembering the signing of the Carta, we must also mark that dark day of undoing countless acts of legislative courage on September 28, 2006 with the signing of the Patriot Act. We must also remember that the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Carta will be marked in the year 2015.
Perhaps, in the intervening years, we can restore honorable, ancient, hallowed traditions of freedom, countering the time in 2006 during the reign of our King George when we cast off our flimsy garments of civilization and lurched back in time more than a thousand years to become once again a race of slack-jawed, knuckle-dragging lurchers.
Kings -- and presidents -- must obey the laws of the land -- just like everyone else. Kings -- and presidents -- are not a law unto themselves.