Peter Jones

How the ‘gangsters’ code’ took over the world

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Cicero’s statement salus populi suprema lex esto (‘Let the security of the people be the ultimate law’) has been the motto or guiding principle of any number of institutions and thinkers from the state of Missouri to Hobbes and Locke. Benjamin Netanyahu is well aware of this and knows that, whatever action he takes, his failure to keep Israel secure from Hamas’s inhuman attacks on civilians will be the end of him.

Cicero (d. 44 bc) was the first person we know of to produce a code of conduct for warfare. In it, he argued that battle should be confined to the military and civilians should have no involvement in it whatsoever. This particular ruling was all of a piece with his broader thoughts developed in his work On the Laws. Here he argued that man’s capacity for reasoning, derived via nature from the divine mind, was designed to ‘correct vice and promote virtue’ and so provide humanity with a universal, legal code of conduct. Such laws distinguished between justice and injustice, punishing the wicked and defending and protecting the good. He admitted that laws serving the temporary needs of communities were the results of popular approval, but he argued that those laws too deserved the name of law since they ‘were designed to ensure the safety of citizens, the security of states, the peaceful, happy life of human beings, and those who first passed such enactments showed their communities that they meant to frame and enact measures which when accepted and adopted allowed them to live happy and honourable lives’. But states that passed ‘measures no more legal than gangsters’ rules’ were no states at all. Hamas’s ‘ultimate law’ has an admirable moral consistency to it – the security of themselves and the slaughter, not the security, of their own helpless children, mothers, the sick and the old, used illegally as shields to defend Hamas hiding in their miles of tunnels (no tunnels for useless civilians, of course).

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