Sunday, May 8, 2011

Redford's The Conspirator & bin Laden

I finally had opportunity to see this fine film by Robert Redford, the story of the trial of Mary Surratt. Surratt owned a boarding house where J. W. Booth and her son plotted the assassination of Lincoln. Her son escaped but she and the other alleged co-conspirators were tried before a military tribunal. The case against her in particular was fabricated but it didn't stop the tribunal, and the political forces behind it, from finding her guilty and sentencing her to hang with the others. It is a story of how law and the Constitution were suspended to provide an emotional release to the general public, since she was assumed guilty from the start.There was a line in the movie about how law must be suspended in a time of war, with the protagonist lamenting the tragic irony of such a statment.

The movie brought so many parallels to mind on the recent assassination of bin Laden.

We saw that Obama outright lied in his speech to the nation about making the connection with bin Laden to 9/11. Bin Laden was never charged with that crime by the FBI because there wasn't sufficient evidence to convict him. Even in war the Geneva Convention requires that an unarmed combatant be given the right to surrender, and that he be given the right of a hearing by military tribunal if accused of war crimes. But again, so much of our own Constitution and of military code was suspended with the excuse that in a time of war it is necessary. And like with the movie, to also satisfy the blood lust of the people, to  make an example and public spectacle of the event merely to appease in the name of political expediency. In both cases, the irony is that wars were fought to preserve the rights of citizens and/or military combatants to be held to a higher standard, and yet we violate that same standard thereby tarnishing the soldiers that gave their lives fighting for such rights.

Another issue in the movie is that shortly after this trial the US Supreme Court required that citizens be tried in civilian courts, not military tribunals. When John Surratt, her son, was eventually caught and brought to civilian court he was released after a mistrial in which 8 jurors voted not guilty. Yet his mother paid with her life for something that her son was accused of doing, and even that could not be proven.


  1. Here are some other opinions about Geneva Convention violations with the bin Laden killing:

  2. From Roger Ebert's review of the film:

    "I found it absorbing and relevant today. It is useful to reflect that it isn't 'her' constitutional rights that are being violated, but our own, because the Constitution must be seen to work equally for all or it loses its strength for everyone. The language and reasoning of Stanton [Secretary of War] echo with similar statements by Bush and Cheney in defense of the Patriot Act, and Reverdy Johnson in this reading would represent Obama, more a compromiser than an idealist."


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