06/03/2013 03:46 EDT | Updated 08/02/2013 05:12 EDT

Why Should Terrorists Obey Our Criminal Code?

Flickr: ArturoYee

When you first heard about the statement of Chiheb Esseghaier -- one of the men charged with plotting a terror attack against a Via Rail train -- that he did not recognize the authority of the Criminal Code because "it is not holy book", how did you respond?

My initial reaction was summarily dismissive. The fact that he did not perceive the Criminal Code to be holy was not just, to me. If he did not wish to be bound by the Criminal Code, he should not have come to Canada. The minute he entered the country, he should have recognized that he would be bound by the laws of this society whether he perceived them to be holy or not. Like them or not, these are the rules of this country. His statement, as such, was totally irrelevant as it would have no effect on the adjudication of his case.

Yet was Esseghaier actually trying to affect the decision in his case with his statement? If not, what then was the point of his remark? In reading a comment on the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 in Illinois, the argument was presented that at the essence of the slavery issue debated was the question of the very basis of morality. What made something right or wrong?

Stephen Douglas' position maintained that it was within the purview of a society to determine its rules, and, more relevantly, the moral standards it demanded of its members. Abraham Lincoln countered that slavery was inherently wrong; the fact that a society may permit slavery still did not make slavery right. This argument was also at the very basis of the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War. That a society or country makes a law does not necessarily make that law right or morally binding.

My initial response to Esseghaier's statement was thus primarily pragmatic. His statement regarding the holiness of the Canadian Criminal Code was irrelevant for it had no standing as a defense argument in court. Regardless of whether he felt the Code was holy or not, he would still suffer the consequences of his actions as defined by this very Code.

Yet, as I further considered his statement, I recognized that the issue he was presenting was one that was actually much greater than this. He was, in a way, contending that the imposition of the Criminal Code upon him was actually no different than Douglas' argument for slavery. Our society's assertion of the Criminal Code does not make it inherently moral. This is what he meant when he said that "it is not holy book." Can our response then only be: too bad, you are still bound by it since you are in our custody?

No. In some way, our response actually has to be that he is wrong, that the Criminal Code is "holy." Of course, I do not mean "holy" within its conventional meaning or even as Esseghaier meant it. The fact is, though, that in a broad, general way, it is not enough for us to see the Criminal Code as morally binding because it is the law of the land. We must go beyond that assertion. We must understand it to be -- again, in a broad and general manner -- the law of the land because it reflects a greater, moral standard that is incumbent upon all humanity.

Lincoln's argument was that slavery was wrong because it was wrong -- and, as such, it should be the law of the land. And so, when the South argued that it wasn't their law, Lincoln entirely dismissed that argument. What is morally binding goes beyond what society declares to be binding. It is an allegiance to a greater standard.

This is, perhaps, what Esseghaier was maintaining -- that he is not bound to our societal rules for he is committed, in his eyes, to what he believes is a greater standard. Our answer, thus, cannot simply be that the Criminal Code is still the rules of our land. Our response, rather, must be that he is inherently wrong, that our Criminal Code is indeed "holy."

With this response, what we are actually arguing is that the moral standards within this Code are not simply the standards solely of our society but, rather, they are what we believe to be the higher standards of morality that are incumbent on all humanity. He is not on trial because he is charged with simply violating Canadian law. He is on trial because he did not meet the universal standards of morality that are encoded in this law of Canada.

With this recognition, though, we must also recognize that our dispute with individuals such as Esseghaier is not simply a local matter but is much more fundamental. He is stating that he accepts a different standard of universal morality.

Our disagreement, as such, extends beyond the borders of our country. We are facing a battle of universal standards -- and the call within us to promote our universal, ethical standards must demand of us to recognize this battle and take the steps necessary to foster our perception of what is right.

Lincoln could not accept slavery even in a state in which he did not live. Similarly, we also cannot accept Esseghaier's statement of what is "holy" in whatever place he may live.

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