Monday, April 22, 2013

Humanity and Liberty

Some men and women in my life leave me awestruck.

Some people find a way to move beyond their own personal grief, their own pain, to forgivenss. Some of those who are parents of a child killed at Sandy Hook did not seek revenge against anyone who might have sold Adam Lanza's mother (Nancy) a gun, they sought a way to make the death of their child mean something. They sought to bring help to the mentally ill, they sought to help others who had been in similar circumstances of grief and loss.  Likewise, when in October of 2006, ten young Amish girls were shot and killed by a deranged man, some of the Amish responded in extraordinary ways. For example, in an NBC News article a few days later Columnist Rod Dreher wrote:

"Yesterday on NBC News, I saw an Amish midwife who had helped birth several of the girls murdered by the killer say that they were planning to take food over to his family's house. She said – and I paraphrase closely – 'This is possible if you have Christ in your heart'."  Another member of the same community wondered how they could do anything else than forgive him and his family.  The community brought food and more needed, kindness and forgiveness to the man's family.

From that same time...

"Jack Meyer, a member of the Brethren community living near the Amish in Lancaster County, said local people were trying to follow Jesus' teachings in dealing with the 'terrible hurt'."

"I don't think there's anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts."

They, these exemplary people, are able to find a place in their soul and conciousness to do something I do not think I could do were it me. I do not think most people can separate their crushing agony from the need to lash out. A few, an admirable few, can do so, but most cannot. I don't know that I could.

Yet, I know which is right. Like the paraphrase that goes, "I don't know that I can define obscentiy but I know it when I see it", equally I think we all know what is the "right thing."  We know it when it warms our hearts, we know it when it leaves us feeling awestruck at their kindness, their selflessness.  They chose to do the magnanimous thing, the thing that makes us better people (rather than worse).  They chose to do that that which moves us forward, rather than sullying us by indulging the desire for revenge.

Jhokar Tsarneav is 19, he looks a bit like my son (wild hair, same eye brows). Perhaps that makes me a bit more likely to be filled with compassion, but I don't think so. I found myself, on Friday, hoping and praying they would find this 19 year old young man and would capture him alive. I wanted this not only because I knew it would be much more valuable to be able to question him, but even more because compounding the tragedy of Boston, a tragedy for which he (Djokhar) is fully responsible, I didn't want it to be compounded with another potentially needless death. If he refused to be taken alive, well that's his choice, but if he could be, that's what I hoped for. His life was ruined, irreparably, but dead is worse. For him and more importantly for his parents, those who care about him. THEY did nothing wrong, but they'd lose a son, a friend, a cousin. Their loss would be no less real than that of the parents of those who were killed at the marathon. Furthermore, any death is a tragedy on its own even if the person is an orphan or friendless.

When a priest visits a capital murder suspect, they do not do so with hatred in their hearts, but rather with forgiveness. When Catholic Priests (and many others) protest capital punishment, they do so because the needless taking of life is unjustifiable taking of life.  No one is bettered by taking lives needlessly.  In young Djohkar's case, he was an impressionable youth lead astray by an older brother he doubtless looked up to, probably idolized, given the absence of his parents.  He should and will spend the rest of his life in prison, how will killing him remove the pain of the loss of an 8 year old boy? 

It would not make my heart any less sad were it my son who had been killed, it would only temporarily abate my rage, and even that would be simply an illusion.  Yet, if it had been my son who had died in the bombing, I have little doubt I would not feel this way, my emotion would overcome my better sense. That's why we don't allow the vctim's families to sit on the jury of the accused. It's why we should not form our laws from emotion, the decisions we would make would not be justice, they would be revenge. Like the Versailles accords which ended World War I, which were profoundly unfair and punative and so lead to the greater horror of World War II, such actions would most likely only lead to a grreater level of horror themselves.  History shows over and over again this course of "an eye for eye" has unfailingly left everyone blind. Perhaps that's what makes folks like the Amish able to put aside their desire for revenge, a wisdom about what the outcome would be if they sought it, but whatever motivates them, I know, history teaches beyond all doubt what bloodlust and vengence lead to.

This is why I am appalled at the reacton of so many of us. So many of us seek to invoke the death penalty for Djohkar. So many of us are ready to waive basic due process protections (seeking to instead define him and treat him as "an emeny combatant"). That designation is a legally dubious definition already struck down by the Supreme Court as not superceding a right to trial. It was invented by George Bush's administration and deeply abused. The Bush government held US citizens (and many hundreds of Afghans) in violation of our Constitution until they were ordered to desist and to provide those so held with a course to resolution, to trial, to counsel and to freedom if found to be not guilty, if found to have it shown there was insufficient evidence to hold them. Hundreds of those held in Guantanamo were subsequently freed peremptorily, quite simply because there was zero evidence to justify holding them not just insufficient evidence. Djokhar isn't innocent, there is more than ample evidence pointing to his guilt, but the point is the Bush government was willing to completely deny basic rights to suspects, and many in this country were plenty ready to go right along with it when the suspect was later shown to be fully innocent. In short, we, the United States, were willing to simply do away with basic liberties because of our fear, and also in part, our desire to exact a measure of revenge. The slippery slope of destroying our liberties was quickly and easily started down, moved well along, with INNOCENT suspects. How far are we now willing to go with those we are pretty confident are guilty? Apparently we're ready (or some of us are willing) to toss aside, for a US citizen, all due process protections. Deny him counsel, deny him a trial by his peers, put him up in front of a kangaroo court (as military tribunals often are when the votes of the officers will weigh on their future careers, where making the "wrong" vote means you might as well retire).   Why not simply get a rope and do what you want to do anyway?  At least then you're being honest about your conduct.  But then, take a look in a mirror, is what you did the "right thing?"

I would ask you to contrast these two approaches, one of compassion, of denying our desire for revenge and instead seeking to walk the path of actual justice, including fair trials, access to counsel, and even presumption of innocense, the other path being that of needing/wanting to harshly "interogate", to create a(nother) legal precedence for doing away with basic rights. Which one sounds like "doing the right thing" to you? Which one sounds like a "slippery slope?"

I do not see denying a person the right to own a rifle with a 30 round magazine as infringing on their basic rights. Those who argue allowing a ban on semi-automtic assault rifles is a "slippery slope" I do not agree with. The basic liberty allowed for in Constitution the owning of basic rifles and basic pistols and limited Congress, not the states. Yet I would stand with them to defend their right to own a firearm should any government seek to ban all firearms. Reasonable limits are not prohibited from the states

Clearly, those on the other side do not see Mirandizing a suspect as a basic liberty. They do not see denying them counsel as denying them a basic liberty. That has been their argument for many years. They don't like Miranda, and they don't like counsel for suspects with whom they don't identify. They prefer the days of the 1950's when cops were allowed to beat "confessions" out of people. They prefer a United States which can torture the "bad guys." They think not allowing it is "shackling" our intelligence efforts. More importantly, they don't appear to have any limit on moving the bar ever backward (so long as it's not them or their friends who is being infringed upon). They got pretty upset when Randy Weaver was apprhended and his family killed They, at first, said they didn't want such harsh tactics (as lack of access to counsel or trial or family) used on people inside our boarders, then they said they didn't want them used on US citizens, then they said they didn't want them used on "non-terror" suspects. Yet, each time those lines were crossed, very few of those who support "2nd amendment" rights and "the Constitution" raised a voice in objection. Unlike me and those who defend due process, there was seemingly no line which they were ready to stand up and say "Stop!" as I would say should someone try to ban all firearms.

What those who seek to be harsh fail to understand is that it is standing up for what is right when it is hard is that which separates a decent country from a totalitarian one. It is the lengths to which we WILL NOT GO, not those to which we will go, which have been used to define a government as behaving as a lawful, civilized society, and the lengths to which others will go, which has had them subsequently defined as engaging in crimes against humanity, their leaders held up as war criminals. But more importantly, it is our compassion for the accused, our desire to be fair first, as well as firm and just, which makes the perpetuation of the violence far less likely. It was exactly this fact which, under General David Patreaus, changed the tone in Iraq. We were no longer 'oppressors' once we stopped having little regard for the collateral deaths of innocents and the collateral usurpation of rights of suspects. It makes us the better men and women, it is the "right thing", it helps us heal rather than leaving us with the empty solace of revenge, and it makes our liberties safe. When we fail to consider the fair treatment of the accused, when we become more about vigilantism, we will no longer be free. Our liberties rest upon our restraint and respect, not upon force. Anyone can pull a trigger or beat a suspect, that hardly makes us a great society, and it will most certainly destroy our goal to be a free one.

As my good fiend just said, "We need our humanity most when it is hardest to find."

1 comment:

  1. As I watched all of the uniformed people in their armor and helmets, with their weapons, supported by helicopters and armored vehicles of one kind and another hunting the remaining Boston bomber, it struck me that he could not prevail; it was only a question of when he was caught, and how.

    As he was taken away in an ambulance after hiding in a boat, bleeding badly, presumably without food or water or sufficient means to stay warm or medical supplies, after losing his brother, possibly even driving over his still living body to save himself, I can only wonder at his fear, despair, and pain.

    Clearly this young man had lost his own humanity, when he placed the mechanism to kill people next to a small boy, looking those people in the eye as he did so. He had lost his ability to feel compassion and empathy, and replaced it with some form of hate.

    As I watched the cheering, flag waving people along the route of the ambulance, I did not want to lose my humanity or my capacity for compassion; I did not want to fall into the failures that led to his horrific mistakes and crimes.

    I am glad that we are treating him in a hospital; I am glad that we will not give in to the calls from the right to torture him - that doesn't work for any useful purpose, but it gratifies their desire to inflict pain. I'm glad that we will hold him accountable, but not treat him in a cruel and barbaric manner.

    His brother is dead, his parents appear to be distraught by his actions, his other family members are shocked and ashamed and as horrified as any of us, are as patriotic as any of us. He presumably no longer has friends. Even al Quaida in Chechnya has rejected him. No one could be more alone, more hated.

    Combined with the inevitable physical pain, I cannot imagine a greater living hell, and a part of me feels compassion for that while also wanting him to face Justice. I don't want to lose my humanity; I don't want us as a nation, as a society, to lose our humanity.