Inter arma enim silent leges is a Latin phrase meaning "For among [times of] arms, the laws fall mute," although it is more popularly rendered as "In times of war, the law falls silent." This maxim was likely first written in these words by Cicero in his published oration Pro Milone, although Cicero's actual wording was "Silent enim leges inter arma."
At the time when Cicero used this phrase, mob violence was common. Armed gangs led by thuggish partisan leaders controlled the streets of Rome. Such leaders were nevertheless elected to high offices.
In more modern usage, it has become a watchword about the erosion of civil liberties during wartime. In the immediate wake of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the maxim was aired and questioned in the American media with renewed force. The implication of the saying as currently used is that civil liberties and freedoms are subservient (for good or ill) to a wartime nation's duty of self-defense.
In 1866, the US Supreme Court referred to this maxim within its ruling on the case Ex parte Milligan when it remarked that "these [amendments of the Bill of Rights], in truth, are all peace provisions of the Constitution and, like all other conventional and legislative laws and enactments, are silent amidst arms, and when the safety of the people becomes the supreme law."
In 1998 Chief Justice William Rehnquist, in All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime suggested that "the least justified of the curtailments of civil liberty" were unlikely to be accepted by the courts in wars of the future. "It is neither desirable nor is it remotely likely that civil liberty will occupy as favored a position in wartime as it does in peacetime. But it is both desirable and likely that more careful attention will be paid by the courts to the basis for the government's claims of necessity as a basis for curtailing civil liberty," the chief justice wrote. "The laws will thus not be silent in time of war, but they will speak with a somewhat different voice."
In 2004, Justice Antonin Scalia used this phrase to decry the plurality decision in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld which in his view, upheld the detention of a U.S. citizen as an enemy combatant, without charge or suspension of the habeas corpus.
"Many think it not only inevitable but entirely proper that liberty give way to security in times of national crisis that, at the extremes of military exigency, inter arma silent leges. Whatever the general merits of the view that war silences law or modulates its voice, that view has no place in the interpretation and application of a Constitution designed precisely to confront war and, in a manner that accords with democratic principles, to accommodate it."
An episode of The Practice in 2001 uses it to refer to the imprisonment of Arab Americans during the "War on Terrorism". Declan McCullogh asserts that the Latin tag "encapsulates the supremacy of security over liberty that typically accompanies national emergencies" (ref McCullogh)
This proverb is used, with series of many others, during loading screens of video game Rome: Total War.