Sunday, May 15, 2011

Crimes to Remember - The Rest of the Story

This all began with reflections on President Obama’s pronouncement after the assassination of Osama bin Laden that “justice has been done.” I said, and still believe, that finding bin Laden was a necessity, but in my mind justice will not be done until all of the unconstitutional measures employed in name of “War on Terror” are rescinded. Seeing the movie, The Conspirator, prompted a reflection, “Crimes to Remember in History,” wherein I recalled in sadness the judicial aftermath of President Lincoln’s assassination, but how it brought to mind John Adams’ refusal to abandon the right to due process even for the British soldiers charged in “Boston Massacre.”

On March 5, 1770, Adams agreed to defend the British soldiers accused of murder in what came to be called the “Boston Massacre” because no one else would. He was denounced as unpatriotic and worse. And when he won the case, successfully proving in court that the British soldiers were not guilty, John Adams was vilified. His life was threatened. He lost half his law practice. Why had he taken the case in the first place? Because he believed that no one in a free country should be denied the right to counsel and a fair trial. John Adams had been tempted to compromise his ideals, but in his resistance he helped to insure that “due process” according to the law would be a part of the bedrock of this country’s new constitution.

Eventually, the people remembered Adams’ integrity and the principle of “due process” which he had been tempted to forsake for his personal safety and convenience. He would go on to persuade the Continental Congress to ask Thomas Jefferson to draft the “Declaration of Independence” and would himself become the second President of the country when George Washington retired.

In the weeks after 9/11, I told this story to my congregation because I feared that in our government’s desire to find those who were guilty of the bombings in New York and Washington that we might be tempted forget the ideals we hold most dear in this country. In the days and years that followed, the Patriot Act (what a travesty in the name!), rendition, Guantanamo Bay, not to mention the war in Iraq, all became words that describe how many of our ideals were sacrificed in the fight against terrorism. And it is why I cannot say that in the death of bin Laden “justice has been done.” Justice demands far more for its scales to be righted.

If Paul Harvey were telling this story (he probably wouldn’t because of his politics), he would doubtless call what happened next, “The Rest of the Story.”

Despite Adams’ great accomplishments, another test of his ideals came in the summer of 1798. Adams, then President and a candidate for a second term, was weary of being under constant attack by his political opponents, led by his Vice-President Thomas Jefferson, and fearing the real possibility of war with their old ally, France. The burden of the presidency has always been an impossibly heavy burden; it was then and it is now.

In that summer, in the midst of war fever and hysteria about a possible invasion by the French and worry about what French-speaking Americans would do in such an event, Congress passed into law extreme measures that Adams had not asked for nor encouraged, but which he signed into law. They were the “Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.” The acts nullified the constitutional guarantees of “due process” under the law and gave the President enormous powers to imprison or deport suspected saboteurs. It also gave the government unprecedented powers to suppress dissent in the press. Jefferson, and the other Republicans, said that the measures were Adam’s attempt to suppress the Republican Party. After the election when Adams was soundly defeated and Jefferson elected President, the measures were repealed.

Despite the fact that, as President, Adams had prevented a likely disastrous war with France and had also prevented a military takeover of the U.S. government from within, Adams’ presidency is still primarily remembered for the passage of the “Alien and Sedition Acts.” Adams’ biographer, David McCullough, acknowledges that the passage of these acts under Adams’ administration is “rightly judged by history as the most reprehensible acts of his presidency.” (David McCullough, John Adams, p. 504)

What happened to the man who so championed the rights of due process that he risked his life, his family’s life, and his livelihood to defend those British soldiers in 1770 and insure provision for due process in the U.S. Constitution, only to sign into law the “Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798”? Was he just weighed down by the impossible burden of the presidency preventing war and a military coup in the White House?

As President Obama has backtracked on his commitment to close Guantanamo Bay and allow military tribunals for “terrorists,” I would hope that the President might remember both of these stories of John Adams.

But, damn it; it is not President Obama who most needs to remember these stories. It is Congress who has refused to allow the closing of Guantanamo and who created such hysteria about trying terrorists in our nation’s courts and on our soil. Despite their rhetoric, not nearly enough of our lawmakers have confidence in the U.S. Constitution. The Tea Party doesn’t have confidence in the Constitution either, and judging by their acquiescence on these violations of the Constitution, neither does a sizable portion of the U.S. citizenry.

Maybe that is what John Adams faced in 1798 and he just got tired of fighting. What do you think? What do you intend to do in our time?

- Milo


Bill said...

I understand fatigue. In a 24/7 news cycle of hurt and worry, is no wonder people retreat in sports or "Dancing with the Stars." Its very hard to try and develop a consistent pattern of ethical behavior. Does my passion for aviation lead me to an overly large carbon footprint? Does my need to invest for my future mean I'm in league with those extream capitalist who care for nothing but profit?

I am fortunate that my life is not as large as Adam's or Obama's. I know I am willing to look around and see what I can do to help someone, or make things a little better. Is that enough? As tired as I am, that's all there is.

Milo Thornberry said...

The problem with you, William, is that you get others to think, including me.

Fatigue must have been a factor for Adams, and no less for Obama. How can it not be? The questions you raise about ethical behavior are important questions.

How do we continue to raise our voices about so much that is wrong? We don't give up, and we don't get so preoccupied with the larger picture that we forget, as you said, "to help someone, or make things a little better."

We'll muddle along, and in the process, keep reminding ourselves not to forget who we want to be.