Friday, January 6, 2017

Pontificating on Dylann Roof - Is It My Place?

I recently published a blog post calling to spare Dylann Roof from the death penalty. But as I was pushing the button, I heard a little voice in my head. The conversation went something like this.

Aaron Linderman, the Reader: Back in November you wrote a post about boundaries, about not having an opinion on things that aren't really your business. You don't live in South Carolina. Your family wasn't among the victims. You're not on the jury. Is it really your place to be commenting on this?

Aaron Linderman, the Writer: Does seem rather inconsistent, doesn't it?

Reader: Yes, it does.

Writer: Well, I suppose I was trying to articulate a principle, namely, that in cases like Roof's, we - and by that I mean the people of Virginia, my state - should show mercy.

Reader: Perhaps you should have been clearer about that. Perhaps you should have written about some of the people currently on death row in Virginia.

Writer: That's a good idea. But I think the argument would be basically the same: These are unsavory people who have grievously hurt society. But rather than continuing the cycle of violence, we should demonstrate that we live in a humane civilization and spare their lives. Moreover, in the overwhelming majority of instances, there's no serious case that they pose a threat of escaping and striking again.

Reader: But on that point about the ongoing danger to society: Are you aware that, here in Virginia, six death row inmates escaped from the Mecklenburg Correctional Center in 1984? It can happen.

Writer: Indeed, it can. A group of seven who escaped in Texas in 2000 also comes to mind. The state has the responsibility to protect society.  For this reason, I think we should probably keep capital punishment on the books, but with several strict limits: (1) There must be the utmost certainty of the defendant's guilt. These days that probably means DNA evidence. Here in Virginia Earl Washington was wrongly sentenced to death, and there are many other cases as well.  This is utterly unacceptable.  (2) It must be a particularly heinous crime that is being punished. (3) The prosecution must make the case that there is a real probability that the defendant could escape from a maximum security prison and kill again. Speaking of prison security, I'd be quite happy to vote for extra money for maximum security prisons, so that we can have confidence in a life sentence.

Reader: This is all interesting, but aren't we getting away from the initial question? Is it really your place to comment on this case?

Writer: Carnes Lord, in his book The Modern Prince, discusses the "right to be wrong." He argues that our elected leaders - not bureaucrats or investigative journalists or other backseat drivers - have been vested by the people with decision-making authority. A bureaucrat has a duty to describe a situation as best he can and to subsequently carry out his orders as well as possible. He does not get to decide, in a fundamental sense, what to do. Elected leaders are vested with that power. We can criticize their decisions, but we must also recognize that, in giving them the authority to make such decisions, we are also granting the possibility that they will make poor ones.

That concept may be relevant here. A jury of ordinary citizens in South Carolina has been given the authority to decide Dylann Roof's fate. I contend that the best choice would be to grant him mercy - even, and perhaps especially, if he is uninterested in it - and spare his life. But I also recognize that government is best conducted, whenever possible, at the local level. And if the above discussion has demonstrated nothing else, I think it shows that this is a complex question. The South Carolina jury is free to make their decision as they see fit. But I do hope they choose life.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Mercy for Dylann Roof

The trial of Dylann Roof, the murderer of nine worshipers at a black church in Charleston in 2015, has now moved to the sentencing phase. The basic question is whether Roof will received life in prison or be executed for his crimes.

There is no doubt that Roof's attack was heinous. In addition to the deaths themselves and the attendant suffering inflicted on the community and the families of the victims, Roof's motive casts a further specter: he sought to ignite a race war in America.

In spite of all this, Roof's life should be spared. His execution would potentially make him a martyr to those few people who share his twisted views of racial superiority and violence. In contrast, sparing his life demonstrates that American society retains the moral high ground and will not stoop to the kind of vindictive actions Dylann Roof has taken.

To my knowledge, no one is making the case that Roof poses a significant threat of escape. So long as he remains behind bars, he poses no threat to society. His blood need not be shed to protect the rest of us.

Human life has dignity - all human life. If we embark on the task of choosing which lives are and are not worthy of respect, as Dylann Roof did, we enter morally dubious territory. Human dignity is innate and inalienable; even acts as heinous as Roof's cannot erase the sacred calling given to him and every man and woman on the planet: to love and to be loved.

Perhaps, as he lives out his days in prison, Dylann Roof might yet come to see that. I'm not optimistic, but I can hope.

UPDATE: For further discussion on this topic, see the follow-on post.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

It Is Not My Place To Have an Opinion

My wife and I recently finished watching Downton Abbey. (Behind the times, I know.) One of the interesting features of the series is how often a character, when asked about some important matter, will answer with something like, "It is not my place to have an opinion." It's not just the servants who express such sentiments; even among the aristocracy, this sense of boundaries is keenly felt.

It strikes me that contemporary America is need of such a sense of boundaries. At present, whenever there is a problem or controversy anywhere in the country, people a thousand miles away begin commenting on things about which they know very little and social media storms brew in no time. Apart from the most grave forms of injustice, we need to trust our fellow citizens in other communities and other states to resolve their own problems. We need to trust that good people in other places will be the voices of decency and reason. They don't need us pontificating about every headline that crosses our news feed.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Films to Heal America

America is in serious need of reconciliation and healing. That was bound to be the case whatever the results in Tuesday's poll. So I asked some American Solidarity Party members for film recommendations to help foster such healing.

The suggestions were wide-ranging, including religious films (The Mission, The Island, There Be Dragons), films about wars (Joyeux Noel, The Railway Man, To End All Wars), films about America (Remember the Titans, Forrest Gump), films set in ancient Rome (Ben Hur, The Robe), and films set in foreign lands or the dystopian future (St. Petersburg, Les Miserables, The Diary of Immaculee, Hunger Games). Here are three I thought particularly notable:

Of Gods and Men (2010). A community of Trappist monks decided to stay in Algeria alongside their Muslim neighbors, even as the civil war turned decidedly ugly.  This is their story.

The Tree of Life (2011). This film tells the story of one man's life through his recollections of childhood and particularly his parents. (Side note: Robert Barron gave some commentary on this film as well.)

Pay It Forward (2000). A film about the power of kindness toward others.

Have you seen any of these films? What did you think? Are there others you would recommend?

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Vote Your Apathy!

Tired of the latest news about Clinton's mishandled emails? Disgusted by Trump's treatment of women? Ready to endorse the Giant Meteor just so we can be done with this election? If you're feeling apathetic about the presidential election, go vote that apathy!

Staying home may be understandable, but it sends the wrong message. It lets the major parties think that more of the same is ok. And it's not.

A third party vote, far from being wasted, sends a message that we need fresh voices, new perspectives, and a real commitment to the common good. So go vote for Michael Maturen and the American Solidarity Party. But if you can't get behind ASP for whatever reason, vote for independent Evan McMullin, Libertarian Gary Johnson, Constituionist Darrell Castle, or the Green Party's Jill Stein. Whatever you do, don't let your apathy be mistaken for agreement. Vote for change.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Is a Third Party Vote Wasted?

This post first appeared on the American Solidarity Party of Virginia website.

You can’t talk about voting for a third party for very long before someone will say, “I don’t like either major candidate, but I’m not going to waste my vote on a third party.”

But is it a waste?

Those who make such comments would point out that, particularly in the presidential race, the odds of actually electing a third party candidate are quite small. In this sense, success is virtually impossible and so the vote is “wasted.” But voting Republican in California, or Democratic in Alabama, is also virtually guaranteed to “fail,” in the sense that these states’ electoral votes are foregone conclusions.

Voting third party, like voting Republican in California or Democratic in Alabama, can send a powerful message. It demonstrates that there are voters out there, voters willing to go to the polls, who have values that are not currently being reflected by the major parties. This is an invitation – to the major parties, to donors, to fellow voters – to rally to those values and the voters who stand by them.

Voting always involves a moral hazard. When you vote for someone you support them, their pros and their cons alike. We generally weigh these and find someone whose positive traits and policies we think are more significant than their shortcomings. Nevertheless, by casting a vote, we are, in some measure, supporting those shortcomings too. In settling for a major party candidate, you may be taking on a larger moral hazard than you’d like. Why not choose a third party candidate with whom your conscience can sleep well at night?

“But what about the Supreme Court?” some people ask. Are we not obligated to vote for a major party candidate, however bad, in the hope of saving the highest court from the justices that the other candidate would appoint? As writers all over the internet have been pointing out, that line of thinking is filled with holes. It rests on a long string of “maybes” and “what ifs,” ignores the role of the Senate in confirming justices, plays upon fear, and overlooks the poor quality of justices we’re likely to get from either candidate.

Next month you can send a clear message that you want something different. You can vote third party. You can vote for American Solidarity. Or you can add your vote to the sea of messages you did not craft and with which you do not agree.

The choice is yours.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Constitutionalism, Solidarity, and Immigrant Heritage: Three Reasons to Celebrate Today!

Today is a triple holiday!

On this day in 1787 the delegates to the Constitutional convention signed the document that has provided the foundation to our political order. As much as we grumbled about contemporary politics, I think the US Constitution deserves recognition as one of the most stable systems of government the world has seen and the framework within which America has prospered in freedom and material plenty. (I would add, in passing, that Constitution Day is a sadly under-celebrated holiday in the US, though the University of Dallas always celebrates in style, with rousing singing of patriotic songs in all of their verses. Definitely worth attending.)

But a constitution, even a good one, is largely an empty vessel. It is the grammar, if you will, of politics, not the contents. Those contents are provided the people, parties, and policies that operate under that system of government. On 17 September 1980, the Solidarity labor union was established in Poland, under a constitutional arrangement far different from our own. But in spite of the Communist system within which it was forced to operate, Solidarity acted as a powerful force for good, reminding us to always pursue what is best, in spite of the odds or circumstances.

Finally, 17 September is also the birthday of Friedrich von Steuben, one of the foreign volunteers who aided the young republic. It is observed in a few localities as Von Steuben Day (complete with parades in New York, Chicago, and Philly). For all its exceptionalism - and America is indeed an exceptional place - our country owes a great debt to the hard work and diverse contributions of many waves of immigrants. Von Steuben Day is a reminder that our arms should continue to be open to those seeking to come to our country.