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No President Is Above the Law

President Bush apparently thinks two wrongs make a right. He plans to break a new law, because he wants the right to torture detainees in the war on terror.

Bush and Vice President Cheney fought congressional efforts in the fall to ban torture. They tried to defeat an amendment to the defense-spending bill prohibiting cruel, humiliating and degrading treatment of terrorists or those suspected of terrorism. They lost.

The Senate approved the amendment overwhelmingly by a 90-9 vote. Even then Cheney tried to get a loophole for CIA operatives. He lost.

The House of Representatives supported the ban with a 308-122 vote. The Bush administration lost yet again.

Bush said the anti-torture ban “made it clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the international convention of torture.

Bush signed into law last Friday a ban on torture that Congress passed and he opposed.

But Bush apparently didn’t mean what he had said and had no plans to obey the law he signed.

Attached to the bill was a “signing statement,” an official document that contained the president’s interpretation of the law. That document stated that in extreme circumstances the president could waive the law for the sake of national security.

Three Republican senators quickly rejected Bush’s claim that he can bypass the law.

Senators John Warner (R-Va.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) issued a joint statement asserting that the president could not override the law against cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of American prisoners.

“We believe the president understands Congress’ intent in passing by very large majorities legislation governing the treatment of detainees included in the 2006 Department of Defense Appropriations and Authorization bills,” they said. “The Congress declined, when asked by administration officials, to include a presidential waiver of the restrictions included in our legislation. Our committee intends through strict oversight to monitor the administration’s implementation of the new law.”

Another senator, Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) supported Warner and McCain.

Graham, a member of Corinth Baptist Church in Seneca, S.C., told the Boston Globe, ”I do not believe that any political figure in the country has the ability to set aside any … law of armed conflict that we have adopted or treaties that we have ratified.”

He said, ”If we go down that road, it will cause great problems for our troops in future conflicts, because [nothing] is to prevent other nations’ leaders from doing the same.”

The president’s action and these senators’ courage have set the stage for more conflict over the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of government. May the legislative branch win. Our government is strongest and works best when power is balanced. The consolidation of power always leads to the abuse of power.

The president’s action also provides an opportunity for people of faith to explore civil morality.

Neither law breaking nor torture is morally the right thing to do. Two wrongs never equal a right. Obeying the law and treating prisoners with dignity is the right path to follow, the best way forward in a sinful world.

The president would do well to obey the law of the land, instead of continually trying to place himself above the law with the questionable argument that national security gives him special leeway.

We would do well to support these three Republican senators and speak up for a balance of power.

Robert Parham is the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.