Monday, August 24, 2009

The Case Of The Scottish Pardon: Or, Extremism in Defense Of Liberty Is Becoming A Little Tiresome

Forty-five years ago this summer, while accepting the Republican party's presidential nomination at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Barry Goldwater thundered: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!" The party's newly visible right wing exploded in cheers while liberal delegates headed for the nearest bar. Although Goldwater was soundly hammered that November by Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Goldwater campaign is considered by many historians to have been a turning point in the process of recrafting right-wing extremism in America as "the mainstream." Numerous regional conservatisms, organized around everything from white supremacy, to reversing progressive schooling trends, to opposing all forms of taxation, began to federate in a concerted, and ultimately successful, effort to take over the Republican party apparatus. As they did it, they altered the language of politics profoundly.

Goldwater's speech terrified members of his own party into voting Democratic; it began the polarizing realignment that we are living with today, in which liberals have no home among Republicans and conservative Democrats play a decisive role in brokering policies advocated by the liberal wing of their own party. But this famous phrase (branded political suicide at the time) was, as it turned out, a harbinger of a deft conservative strategy, forged in the white supremacist south, in Father Coughlin's New Deal demagoguery, in Joe McCarthy's hearing room, and in the pamphlets mailed by Richard Viguerie that promised the death of the American family itself. Extremism would, in the end, sell a range of policies and attitudes to a broader public over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. Extremism, as it has become business as usual across the political spectrum, has also brought us to a point of absurdity in American history where we, the people, are being urged to cancel scheduled trips to Scotland and to boycott Scottish products (name three Scottish products that you consume regularly -- oops! time is up!) to protest the Scottish government's release of Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, convicted in 2001 as the Lockerbie Bomber. Two hundred seventy people were killed when Pan Am Flight 103 plunged into the town of Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21 1988 in one of the most deadly terrorist attacks in history.

Al-Megrahie claimed to be innocent throughout his trial, and indeed, there was some evidence that pointed to the bombing as the action of a Palestinian group. As CNN reports, "British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who had earlier faced criticism for remaining silent on the issue, said Monday that freeing al-Megrahi would not act as an encouragement to terrorists." What CNN does not say, of course, is that terrorists seem to need no encouragement to keep on doing what they are doing. One alternate explanation for continued terrorism might be, for example, the continued killing and torture of civilians by the United States and its allies, or United States military and financial support for corrupt and repressive regimes.

On the other hand, history suggests that the Scots are very easy to provoke as well. No one would be more aware of that than the English so, were I Gordon Brown, I would play hot potato with this one too. The former Kingdom of the Picts was in rebellion against various colonizers almost continuously from the eighth century until they were brutally repressed by the English army at the Battle of Culloden in 1745; thousands of Scots were murdered following their surrender or deported to penal colonies where they then died of disease and starvation. But even when thoroughly repressed and stripped of their kilts, the Scots were perceived as a possible source of domestic terrorism within the empire. In 1812, Lord Selkirk brought thousands of Scots who had been tossed off their land by enclosures (including ancestors of the Tenured Radical) to Manitoba so that they could starve and die in the outer reaches of the empire instead of roaming about land they no longer owned in search of food and shelter and rebelling against the Crown again. The Selkirk Settlement accomplished two things: it balanced out the ratio of Europeans to Native people a bit more in England's favor, and it got a lot of angry Picts out of the Crown's hair just in case.

In other words, what is now called Scotland has only been pacified for less than a third of the time that it has been in open rebellion, and Gordon Brown is not about to quarrel with the Scottish Parliament (which became semi-autonomous in 1998) about something so small as the release of a terrorist who is going to be dead from prostate cancer within the year.

But to return to a serious discussion of political culture for a moment, let's look hard at the kind of outrage ordinary Americans are being asked to muster in the face of al-Megrahie's release, an entirely symbolic event. We, who in the face of a rising crime rate, are still drinking the conservative Kool-Aid and believe unquestioningly that locking up people for life and stacking them six to a cell made for two makes us "safer." We believe that executing people gives grieving relatives of murdered people "closure," unless the killer happens to be an NFL wide receiver, in which case closure is best achieved by writing a very large check. What do we know about justice? And if some Libyans want to dance in the streets to welcome al-Megrahie home, so what? As Americans we cannot, on the one hand, declare that we are promoting "our freedoms" around the globe at the point of a gun, and then insist that the Libyan government use its powerful state apparatus to clamp down on a mass demonstration exercising what would be known in America as first amendment rights.

The American response to this non-event, and the amount of media time being wasted on it, shows how completely the rhetorical culture war launched by Goldwater has shaped popular political thought since that critical speech in 1964. What was roundly decried as dangerous then is the new normal now. Extremism is why politicians, instead of staying in Washington to work on a health reform bill, are spending gobs of time either propagating lies about what would constitute good health care or patiently explaining to otherwise normal people that Barack Obama is not a National Socialist, a socialist, or a communist (thanks to decades of conservative education cuts, many citizens my age seem believe that all three political categories represent different ways of saying the same thing.)

In the decades since Goldwater's fiery right-wing candidacy, extremist rhetoric has become the new normal. As a consequence, many Americans have no tolerance for a sustained, nuanced discussion and have acquired a collective Attention Deficit Disorder when it comes to political life. A budget meltdown in 48 out of fifty states? Let's talk about adultery! Health reform going down the tubes? Hey, whaddya think about Michael Vick? Possibility that we can create the grounds for a new diplomacy by demonstrating to the Muslim world that Americans can show compassion and humanity towards a man who urinates in a bag and may not have been guilty in the first place? No, no, no: it's much more important politically that the relatives of the Lockerbie dead get to claim "closure" by having some Libyan -- any Libyan, really -- die in jail.

Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the defense of justice is no virtue.

Americans, and their market-driven news outlets, are virtually unable to focus on the big picture for long enough to think about what actual "American values" are being expressed by the desire that al-Megrahi die in a Scottish prison (at a moment in history where conservatives wax rhapsodic about the beauty of Grandma's lingering, painful death surrounded by loved ones who write checks to Big Pharma every hour or so.) At the same time, we insist that to punish (or, heaven forfend, even just fire) CIA interrogators who tortured detainees -- many of whom were innocent of any involvement in terrorism -- would "send the wrong message" to "our enemies."

What message? Which enemies? I'm surprised that Nike has not been asked by some creative right-wing Senator to step forward and make a formal statement that the company does not condone al-Megrahi's decision to travel home in one of their signature tennis caps.

In fact, there is a good argument that moderation in pursuit of justice actually is a virtue, and the Scottish pardon creates an excellent opportunity to discuss this question as a national and an international ethic. Part of the problem with Americans today is that we either don't understand what would constitute moderation anymore, or we apply this doctrine selectively (as in the case of professional and college star athletes.) But I would also argue for a third possibility: that there is no longer any rhetorical or judicial space available to discuss compassion, redemption or reincorporation as virtues that a democracy can practice. For example: sex offenders are punished for the rest of their natural lives as if all of them were predators, when the reality is that there is a broad range of statutory crimes that are felonious even if both parties to the sexual act happily agreed to it. And yet, we have created a political atmosphere where tolerating broad injustices (including a high rate of homelessness and unemployment among registered sex offenders) is not worth the opprobrium that would be rained down on any policy maker who tried to reform this senseless and (I believe) unconstitutional policy.

In 2009, we Americans have come to believe that all politics are ultimately cultural, and can be addressed with vague, and increasingly shrill, cultural responses. We expect politicians to craft laws and social policies that reflect our opinions, our emotions and our collective sense of fear, not reasoned and substantively researched positions. And this, in my view, has been the ultimate Goldwater victory.

Cross-posted at Cliopatria.


Anonymous said...

Let's not forget that the victims of this terrorist attack are believed to have survived and remained conscious for almost a full minute after the bomb went off while the plane was plummeting toward the ground. Many were found dead, still strapped to their seats with fingers crossed. A civilized society would have executed this terrorist long ago.

Roxie Smith Lindemann said...

Brava! Brilliant analysis. Spot on. (NB: This praise is directed at the post, not the previous comment. Last time I checked, an eye for an eye was not the rule of most "civilized societ[ies].")

Tenured Radical said...

Anonymous 11:02 --

I could not have asked for a better illustration of what this post is really talking about.

JackDanielsBlack said...

I agree with much of what you say here. But I am curious-- by the argument you make here, the jury in San Francisco that bought into the "twinkie defense" offered by Harvey Milk's killer was practicing the kind of tempering-justice-with-mercy that you espouse here, no?

Tenured Radical said...

Now Jack:

you are trying to bait me with crimes against homosexuals!

Whether the "twinkies defense" was sound or not, it was an interpretation of the M'Naghton Rule, and the jury that ruled in the Milk murder accepted it as such. But the M'Naghton rule also has less to do with mercy (and nothing to do with forgiveness) but rather whether the alleged perpetrator understood his/her moral position and the gravity of the offense at the time of the crime.

JackDanielsBlack said...

TR, I am not trying to bait you, I am just trying to tease out some of the ramifications of what you are saying. I am sure that in addition to indulging in their anti-gay prejudices, many of Dan White's jurors thought they were being merciful -- and considering what a nutcase White was, perhaps they were.

By the way, I think extremism in defense of individual liberty would put an end to the ex post facto registration requirements placed on sex offenders even after they have served their time. I think applying such requirements to folks whose "crime" is urinating in public or indecent exposure is a particularly egregious violation of individual liberty, and I am pretty sure that Barry Goldwater would agree with me.

Anonymous said...

Where is this mythical "rising crime rate" you refer to in the post TR? Go for instance to

and you'll see remarkable drops in all different categories of crimes.

Anonymous said...

TR: I enjoyed your commentary - it was refreshing. Anybody who spends anytime in Europe or listening to European news can find American responses (and media treatment of such responses) as deeply shocking. I heard about the release from the BBC - the story and discussion of the event was calm, measured, and looked at all sides. While it was clear that some Scots were angry and outraged about the release, many also expressed agreement with the decision. There was clearly MUCH more discussion in Britain over the possibility that this man had been wrongly accused than here, where the fact of his conviction is taken as an unequivical sign of guilt, in spite of very real concerns expressed by many experts in international law over said conviction. Basically, many very smart and knowledgeable people who followed the trial closely believe firmly that he is an innocent man, and almost all commentators believe that the Scots made their pardon decision based primarily on this fact, even though they couldn't articulate it that way to the media. In the US media, there has been almost no coverage of the concerns about this man's trial - only hammering on & on about the injustice of releasing him. It is all static, and no information.

Alan Allport said...

al-Megrahie has *not* been pardoned. He has been released on compassionate grounds. This is not a nitpicking distinction, as the two acts have important legal and moral differences.

Charles Fulton said...

I think it's a bit much to lay all this on the ghost of Barry Goldwater when the Brits themselves are troubled and divided over the release. Personally, I don't have a problem if the Scots did this to improve their relations with Libya and obtain access to Libya's oil (as suggested in the New York Times and elsewhere). That's part of the give-and-take of international relations. However, I didn't lose any relatives in the bombing (or any other terrorist act) so I can afford to be detached.

Anonymous said...

Can we have a footnote for the claim that "hundreds of thousands of Scots were murdered following their surrender [after Culloden] or deported to penal colonies where they then died of disease and starvation"? Is this number not way, way too high?

Tenured Radical said...

Depends whether you ask the Scots or the Brits, and over nine centuries, probably several hundred thousand Scots were killed or deported defending their country: the Romans were big on taking slaves, and the Scots were tough birds. For Culloden in particular the official Brit number is 50-80; the Scots calculate @ 1200 + families and allies. But no, not several hundred thousand in 1745 alone: given the killing technology it was very difficult to kill even a thousand people at a time in 1745.

Anyway, look it up yourself and post a cite. What is it with commenters when they ask for citations instead of speaking to the main argument of the post????

Anonymous said...

TR, I used to love your blog. You jumped the shark with this post. If only peace were as simple as ending "the continued killing and torture of civilians by the United States and its allies, or United States military and financial support for corrupt and repressive regimes." But it's not always about the United States. And I say this as a longtime resident of the Middle East. This especially holds true in Libya.

Susan said...

Indeed. I'm not sure what would be gained if al-Megrahi, instead of 8 years in prison, spent 8 years and 4 months? It makes it better? That Scotland has a policy about compassionate release for those on the verge of death sounds sane. (And it's a general policy, not one for this prisoner only.) The greatest irony about the thirst for vengeance in our culture is how disconnected it is from the Christian tradition, which so many conservatives seek to uphold.

But one minor footnote: Gordon Brown is himself a Scot, representing a Scottish constituency.

Tenured Radical said...


My sentiments exactly -- since when did "Christian" mean embracing the Old Testament, as opposed to the salvation, charity, and forgiveness, which was the lesson of Jesus' sacrifice?

And thanks for the fn. on Gordon Brown.

Anonymous said...

Susan beat me to the punch on Brown's origins, but I'd add that his background only makes anything that smacks of central-govt interference with the powers of the devolved government even touchier for him, especially as Labour direly, direly needs to keep its traditional supporters in Scotland from switching too many of their votes to the Scottish Nationalist Party if it is not to get trounced in the next elections.

Barry DeCicco said...

"But no, not several hundred thousand in 1745 alone: given the killing technology it was very difficult to kill even a thousand people at a time in 1745."

Nah - ride in with a couple hundred cavalrymen, shoot the living sh*t out of anybody outside their houses, and then burn the village down, shooting anybody who fled. Then burn the crops in the field (unless it was after harvest, in which case the stored food for the winter would have gone up with the buildings).

Now, it'd be a good day's work, but still quite doable.

Sam Hasler said...

Bravo. Very good points made throughout. That we Americans are making too much of this is all too true. Unreason is the name of the game here.

Dave Coull said...

"The former Kingdom of the Picts was in rebellion against various colonizers almost continuously from the eighth century until they were brutally repressed by the English army at the Battle of Culloden in 1745" - While agreeing with nearly all of this article, I have to take issue with that bit! I live in the heartland of the Picts, just three miles from the "Pictavia" Visitors' Centre, and I am myself of Pictish descent. I live with my American wife (she moved here, rather than me moving to the USA), and, just a couple of days ago, we had the pleasure of welcoming a visitor from the USA. But I must point out that the Battle of Culloden was NOT between the English and the Picts/Scots. A majority of the troops on both sides of that battle were Scottish. A large number of the troops on BOTH sides were Gaelic-speaking Highlanders. Yes, what happened in the aftermath of that battle was horrific. But that's no reason to distort history. Prince Charlie was seeking the BRITISH throne, not just the Scottish one, and he did have some English volunteers on his side. If I'd been around then, I don't know if I would have supported him or not. But I do know which side I'm on NOW: I support independence for Scotland, and I welcome the fact that our Justice Secretary was prepared to act independently, and in accordance with Scotland's laws and values, despite all the pressure put on him.

Anonymous said...

um...whiskey?No need for a gratuitous attack on the Scottish

Anonymous said...

What of Bernie Madoff? Would you apply the same arguments to his release?

pm said...

@ (the first) anonymous

Really? sounds like a myth to me. To keep your fingers crossed requires an active exertion of muscles - surely upon death your fingers would naturally uncross, so how would anyone know?

I don't know about the release, its all rather opaque to me. But it is normal Scottish law for prisoners to be released if they are in the last stages of a terminal disease. People should have thought about this when he was convicted, if they didn't want it to happen.

I do think the original conviction was dubious and looks rather like a political fix. The evidence was risible (a shopkeeper recognising him from an entirely mundane transaction months or years before? Can you positively identify that checkout worker you bought your groceries from one day last year?).

That's not to say the Libyans weren't involved, just that the evidence publicly presented did not seem to me to justify the conviction. And there was no jury of course.

This article's take on Scottish/English history is a bit dubious as well. The army at Culloden was not English, it was mostly made up of other Scots.

Ultimately the Union came about as a result of Scotland bankrupting itself in its failed attempts to build an empire in the Americas. Scotland was not 'colonised' as various parts of the British Empire were, the history is as much about the competing interests of rival royals as it is about nationalism. If the Scots now want independence that's entirely up to them of course, I just wish they'd make their collective mind up either way.