Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Justice Under the Gun

“Freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule
to live by, common to everyone of that society.”
John Locke

The latest news from Iraq ought to be quite disturbing to the Bush administration.

Not since February 2004 has there been such a large, coordinated, sustained, deadly, and – from the insurgent’s perspective – successful attack. Twenty-five months ago in Fallujah, 15 policemen were killed in a raid that freed 70 prisoners. This Tuesday, March 21, in Muqdadiya, which is northeast of Baghdad, as many as 200 fighters destroyed a police station, killing 18 policemen and freeing 33 prisoners – all of whom, according to the provincial governor, are insurgents.

Piecing together various news reports on the assault and its aftermath, what jumps out is the sheer audacity of the attack.

The size of the assault force – 200 men – equals a reinforced company in the U.S. army – a potent combat unit when trained and provided clear objectives, as these attackers seem to have been.

- It was staged in the early morning hours, meaning the attackers assembled during the night without being detected by coalition forces that are supposed “to rule the night” by virtue of night vision devices.

- Fighting lasted for an hour. Discipline, time elapsed, and size of the attacking force suggests this encounter was planned and possibly led by a professional military person.

- The attackers stood their ground even when U.S. combat helicopters arrived on the scene. News reports indicated that the insurgents anticipated they would have to confront this development. Although no helicopters were shot down, some were struck by insurgent machine gun fire.

- As part of their “preparation of the battlefield,” the insurgents cut telephone wires running from the area to curtail communications and planted improvised explosive devices along likely land routes a relief column would use.

Two policemen were killed elsewhere the same day, while four were slain the day before and four the day after – 32 (at least) in three days.

So is this the start of a concentrated offensive aimed at Iraq’s fledgling judicial system?

It may be premature to make a sweeping judgment, but the Bush administration would be derelict not to consider the possibility. Nothing would undermine democratic governance – even of a semi-theocratic nature – faster than the perception that the rule of law has completely broken down.

Law – universal and uniform – is the glue that holds society together and allows it to operate on an orderly basis. Members of such a society are able to rely on pre-ordained, permanent rules of general conduct that set parameters for interactions among individuals and between individuals and the power institutions of government – of which the police is one.

Of course, another possibility is that most of the prisoners (and attackers) were one religious sect (Sunni) and the police were the other (Shi’ite). In a society as divided and fragile as Iraq, the power institutions can all too quickly come under suspicion with or without evidence of malfeasance. And with ample evidence that death squads comprised of police personnel have committed many sectarian murders in the last month, Muqdadiya may represent preemptive action by one community to avoid another mass murder.

Either way, justice is literally under the gun.

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