09/18/2006 03:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011


Academic political theorists are my primary professional colleagues, forming my main associational network outside of my Huffposting, teaching, book writing, soccer daddying, and a few other activities. In that circle of political theorists, prominent voices (assertively, matter-of-factly, no longer whispering, with a studiousness devoid of shrillness) are starting to call George W. Bush a tyrant.

Tyrant is a strong word, with loaded connotations. In ancient Greece, it originally was an ethically neutral term (some tyrants were seen as good, some as bad), designating only that a person had successfully overthrown an established government and arrogated the law unto himself. Later, tyranny became aligned with the more modern senses of cruel despotism or oppressive dictatorship. Whether you think good or ill of him, the tyrant is a ruler who believes he can and should operate above the law.

By now it has become clear that George W. Bush believes in his executive right to usurp, circumvent, rewrite, or ignore established law. The evidence is quite overwhelming, to wit:

--signing hundreds of signing statements that bypass or even nullify Congress's legislative authority;
--warrantless wiretaps and surveillance methods, in violation of the 1978 FISA law;
--authorizing torture and interrogation methods that violate the Geneva Conventions;
--detaining terrorist suspects without formal charges and depriving prisoners the right to trial, also in violation of the Geneva Conventions and arguably in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The list could go on to include the preemptive war doctrine, Plamegate, secret prisons, and other weighty matters.

Bush apologists argue that these end-runs around the law are necessary for the sake of national security. John Yoo has been arguing (from Abu Ghraib onward) that these measures are not only necessary, they are also, he claims, constitutionally justified--and not just owing to the exigencies of war in a time of terror, but to a broader initiative to reinvigorate the office of the presidency. Yoo freely concedes Bush's tyrannical tendencies but argues that the Constitution implicitly gives warrant to such unlawfulness (well beyond emergency powers): "The White House has decided that the Constitution allows the president to sidestep laws that invade his executive authority."

Paul Krugman seems to agree with Yoo's analysis about the president's relentless drive to consolidate power for the sake of power, except that Krugman clearly disapproves of such usurpations: "The central drive of the Bush administration--more fundamental than any particular power--has been the effort to eliminate all limits on the president's power. Torture, I believe, appeals to the president and the vice president precisely because it's a violation of both law and tradition. By making an illegal and immoral practice a key element of U.S. policy, they're asserting their right to do whatever they claim is necessary."

My question is, what, if any, is the president's big picture, the larger, the long-term vision of American government proffered via his "strong executive" extra-legal initiatives? Yoo's lame defense--the President Über Alles--simply cannot abide. The president cannot be a supreme legislator unto himself. At what point do we officially reclassify our form of government as a "national security state" led by a singular Commander-in-Chief--in short, a tyranny--instead of a constitutional democratic representative republic?

Shouldn't the rest of us be calling a tyrant a tyrant? Shouldn't we be resisting our own reluctance to recognize and name this woeful state of affairs for what it is? ("I have sworn eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man," wrote Thomas Jefferson.) Shouldn't someone sit George W. Bush down and say in unequivocal, condemnatory terms: Ours is a government of laws, not men. You may believe you have access to higher powers or hidden clauses that justify your lawbreaking activity. You may think you are the savior of the nation. But our system will ultimately defeat such arrogance, much as we will defeat terrorist threats through law-abiding measures. Even though you are President of these United States, you cannot break our laws, period. If you break the law, there will be consequences. There must be consequences, or else our system will be no more. Fiat justitia, et pereat mundus.