HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

November 12, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


The Justice of Revenge

It appears increasingly that we have to rely on popular culture to introduce positions too shocking for political discourse. Last night on Boston Legal, Alan Shore, a fictional lawyer, argued in a fictional courtroom that personal revenge, carried even unto murder, is preferable to judicial killing by the state. The latter is always cold, viciously ritualistic, and filthy whereas a parent avenging the death of her child carries with it a justice the state can never approach.

Obviously, this runs counter to one of our near-sacred beliefs: that no one, regardless of the situation, should take the law into her own hands. Were we not to stand by this hoary doctrine, so the theory goes, we would descend into bloody chaos. Perhaps. Yet, in saying so, we deny the capability of juries to decide when revenge is justified. We place in the hands of juries equally momentous decisions with respect to other behavior. So, why is the justice of revenge ruled out?

I am not yet ready to argue in favor of personal revenge, even for parents whose children have been brutally abused. But I do think the right of jury nullification, where a jury decides that regardless of the law violated, the accused should not suffer legal punishment, needs to be more openly acknowledged. What dangers would we run if it were? After all, we're widely known as being among the most punitive-minded people on earth. And we afford to our prosecutors wide powers to eliminate from juries anyone they think may have a sympathetic heart. So, when a jury selected by the American system decides that an act of revenge is justified, it's not likely that we're going to be releasing hardened criminals onto the streets.

The issue of whether revenge is ever justified is another matter. If we ever reached a state of social development such that most people genuinely condemned revenge, we doubtless would be a better people. But, obviously, we're nowhere close to that. Revenge -- swift, brutal, and excessive -- is a bedrock principle of our foreign policy. And the ghoulish cheers at state ordained killings shows that lust for revenge runs deep in popular emotion.  So if, occasionally, a jury decided that an act of revenge was justified, I doubt our already compromised public morality would sink to a lower level.


The Soothing Disconnect

A mental habit that strikes me every time I visit in the small towns of south-central Florida is the way most people avoid any sense of being seriously connected to a wider world. It's almost as though Wauchula, Bowling Green, Ft. Meade, and, maybe, Bartow constitute a universe and nothing that goes on outside it is of much concern.

The people here know, of course, that many of the products they buy in the local Wal-Mart come from China. But such knowledge doesn't penetrate their inner ring of interest. It is, at its height, incidental.

A headline in the Lakeland Ledger proclaimed a few days ago that there was unrest in Pakistan. But here, it seemed like news from the moon. That it had the potential to affect how they live seemed unimaginable. It didn't attract nearly as much attention as a story about a little girl born with four arms and four legs.

The national media, with their incessant talk of the "heartland,'' find something charming in worldly innocence. They glory in the notion that real Americans get up every day, go to work, and think mainly about the price of trucks, gas, and chicken. This, somehow, is virtue. This was the way of their grandfathers and grandmothers, and they, as everyone knows, lived in a better world than we do.

It is also a manner that politicians love because it offers them unbounded opportunity for manipulation. When Rudy Giuliani tells the heartland that their profit-driven medical care is twice as good as that socialized stuff "over there," the people are supposed to lap it up like manna from heaven -- no questions asked.

There is a sense of duty to neighbors. If somebody gets sick, you're supposed to take food to his house. There is, by contrast, no duty of citizenship. If some account of corruption or mayhem from outside the locality happens to reach one's ears, it's an occasion for shaking the head, and nothing more.

How long this can persist it's impossible to say -- perhaps longer than we can imagine. But its effect is not in doubt. It leads to injustice every hour of every day. Such horrors, so far, are written off as the workings of an inscrutable providence. Yet, I suspect that, under the surface, angers the people are not yet conscious of are swelling. When they burst out, goodness knows what will happen.


The Overriding Issue

I see that Pat Robertson has decided to endorse Rudy Giuliani for president. So much for Robertson's ersatz Christian values. We can say many things about Rudy but I doubt anyone has ever accused him of being born again. But, as Pat says, "the overriding issue before the American people is the defense of our population from the bloodlust of Islamic terrorists."

What happened to salvation and the fate of the eternal soul? Wouldn't you think they would override Islamic bloodlust?

News of this sort, though it still gets some coverage, appears increasingly to bore the journalistic community. What evangelicals think about politics is not the burning topic it was just a few years ago. The tired phrases -- people of faith, the power of belief, heartland values, et cetera -- are still trotted out. But they don't have their old zing. It's as though the media are saying, "Been there, done that."

I suspect those most relieved by the passing of this mania are those who call themselves evangelicals. It must afford them a wondrous breath of freedom not to feel obliged to endorse vicious political positions in order to maintain their Christian status. With the change, some of them might even be able to abate their bloodlust for capital punishment and the bombing of people outside our borders. Wouldn't that be a wonder!


Real Courage

Mitt Romney is running a campaign commercial here in central Florida which emphasizes that he stood up for true virtue in the toughest place you can imagine. And where was that? Massachusetts, of course. It's a name to cause sweet Republican tots to tremble in their nighties. But they have nothing to fear because Mitt, galloping in on a white horse, has the fortitude to face it and put it down. They have a shining champion against the black knight Ted Kennedy.

We've come to expect political candidates to be shameless. But so far in this political season, Romney is king of the pack. He's Mr. Republican -- actually the only real Republican in the race. He's so conservative that any other so-called conservative turns pink in his presence. And he is upright, and clean, and orderly -- not a hair out of place. And when it comes to family values, he defines the term. When you think of family, you just have to think of Mitt Romney because without him showing us the way, the very concept of family would fall apart.

It must be the case that someone has told Mitt that some people will believe this tripe. Or maybe he believes it himself. He is reputed to be able to believe anything, instantaneously, that will work to his advantage. It's a wonderful skill in politics. When one actually believes his own lies they come across as being much more credible.

Even so, I doubt he believes them enough to run the commercial he's running here back in what was once his home state.


Quaint Opinions

A letter writer to the Lakeland Ledger, Gerald Blake of Haines City, says that Barack Obama can't be allowed even to be a dog warden because he was educated in Muslim schools all his life and he failed to hold his hand over his heart while reciting the pledge of allegiance.

The Ledger appended an editorial note which didn't refute Mr. Blake directly but did quote Obama and a web site devoted to shedding light on rumors. This, I suppose, was as bold as the editors dared to be. It's a hearty crew there at the Ledger.

We can wonder where people such as Gerald Blake come from. I recall that Herblock used to draw cartoons showing them crawling out from under rocks, which was emotionally satisfying but didn't actually explain much. I suppose the practical thing is to recognize that there are nutty people in the world and let it go at that. Still, I am curious about the source of their nuttiness.

The most likely explanation is that they gather in groups and pass their bizarre stories around. Yet, somehow, I doubt the stories themselves originate with crazy people. It's more likely they're created by those who know exactly what they're doing, and then injected into the wacko rumor stream.  It would constitute ingenious historical labor to unearth the actual generation of slanderous political tales. But maybe that requires digging deeper than anybody can go.

I should add, as a postscript, that I have never placed my hand over my heart when reciting anything. I wonder if Mr. Blake believes such gestures of nation worship are required by law.


Self-imposed Terror

Rosa Brooks reports that Republicans have a new litmus test. It has nothing to do with abortion. Now the serious test is whether a candidate will protect officials who have tortured prisoners of the United States. Evidently, throughout the Bush administration, people are frightened they will be called to account for illegal acts they have committed while helping the president conduct his war on terror. Their fear raises the suspicion that participation in torture has been more widespread than we have imagined. If that turns out to be the case, we shouldn't be surprised.

When officials are eager to support "aggressive interrogation techniques" publicly we have good reason to think that behind the scenes there is almost nothing they won't do to people in their power. There now can be little doubt that for decades the United States will be known around the world as the torture nation. Is that because American officials use torture more than anyone else? Probably not. But there may be a wider gap between who we say we are and what we actually do than there is for any other country. Hypocrisy of that dimension draws wide contempt.

After Bush leaves office there will probably be an attempt to sweep the whole torture issue under the rug. That would be a mistake. A vigorous investigation of what has taken place during the Bush administration and full disclosure of it would begin the process of restoring America's reputation. There's no need to throw people in jail -- though a few short prison sentences wouldn't be the worst thing we've done. But there is a need to say who did what. And even that prospect seems to be striking terror into a wide swath of Bush officialdom.


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