01/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Beg Your Pardon

A friend of mine--I'd better give attribution here; his name is Pete Tannen--who periodically writes humorous columns which he sends via the Web to his list of subscribers--is having a contest. Actually, he had this contest once before and is running it a second time. I guess people enjoyed it the first time around, and since there is no actual winner yet, he is letting us take a second crack at it. He is asking us, his audience, to make our best guesses, out of a rather long list of perps, as to who will be the lucky recipients of the much discussed pardons bestowed by our lame duck you-know-who, as he waddles ungrammatically from office. (That was unkind: rhetoric has nothing to do with this issue.)

The list has about twenty names on it, and they range from Eliot Spitzer to John Walker Lindh. We players are to choose our favorite five--by which I mean the ones we think most likely to get sprung. Mr. Tannen, not a dictatorial type, has given his contestants the option of write-ins, just in case we think there are any hot candidates he missed, like for instance Dick Cheney, who--I know, I know, isn't a convicted felon--yet, but Bush can pardon before the fact, so it would seem to me that people like Cheney ought not to be exempt. After all, he may have more right to be on the list than anyone actually on it. (You can get on to Pete's mailing list at

This presidential pardon-before-the-fact deal is pretty cool, if you think about it. You could get the pardon first and then go out and rob a bank, or shoot a relative you have been wanting to get rid of, all the time knowing absolutely that you will get away with the crime, that whatever it is you've done, no punishment will befall you. (Or, do pardons apply only to crimes committed before the pardon is proffered? I confess, I do not know.)

When mulling over the list of candidates--the winner gets taken out to lunch by Pete, no small reward and therefore a win eagerly to be sought--I decided that maybe we should pardon people who might actually deserve pardoning, rather than this given list of reprobates. So, I voted (there weren't any no dead guy rules) for Sacco and Vanzetti (not exactly saints, but probably innocent of the crime for which they were executed), Ethel Rosenberg (guilty only of typing while being Julius' wife), John Brown (a tad violent for my taste, but on the side of the angels), and my dad (he got dumped in three different prisons for refusing to name names when called before HUAC, and I personally think he deserved an award, not a prison term, but I'm willing to settle for a posthumous pardon.)

I was being cute.

But ever since I sent in my list (for which I immediately won "most creative" and will, I am told, receive a special prize), I've been pondering, thinking about the way things are. Isn't it odd that presidential pardons are given to people who have actually done deeds illegal, hurtful to others, bad on their face, rather than people who have been imprisoned for principled stances they took, for fighting for the rights of others, and especially people who have broken a law but hurt no one but themselves? Doesn't the ability arbitrarily to grant pardons smack of a non-democratic, royal-ish rule, like that of the very Royalty against which we revolted and which revolt we celebrate on our much touted Independence Day? Well, guess what? The pardon is a royal-ish rule; it comes directly from the British, from whom we so proudly separated. George Washington hand-picked this particular privilege and took it right along with him, just adopted it as our own. Or perhaps, more accurately, failed to discard it. Doesn't it seem, well, dare I say, a little fascistic that one man (or maybe some day, woman) can bypass our whole judicial set-up to free anyone he or she chooses for any reason? Like, I pardon you because you are my guy, because you have done what I wanted you to do, because I've always had the hots for you, because I have the hots for your mother/sister/daughter or father/brother/son, because you have made me even richer than I already am, because after I pardon you, you will make me richer still, or because well, you promised to keep your mouth shut about you know what....

In these often puzzling United States we have, sad to say, plenty of people who have been jailed for acts of conscience.

Like Joan Baez, for example. Didn't she go to prison for refusing to pay taxes during the Vietnam War? --Yes, I know refusing to pay taxes is illegal, but this was an act of Civil Disobedience (see Henry David Thoreau.) Wasn't that refusal an act that took courage? Admirable courage. The courage to say no, I will not contribute my money to support this war? She sacrificed freedom to make a very loud and impassioned statement. Surely she knew they would lock her up. And she made this expensive sacrifice in the effort to save lives.

Someone, perhaps Edmund Burke, said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Dr. King said, "Noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good."

I supose that at this point it goes without saying that I believe that killing is evil.

So, how about the Berrigan Brothers, Daniel and Philip, both of whom spent years in prison for anti-war demonstrations. You know, you take a hammer and whack a big piece of metal that is a BOMB, and off you go to the slammer for messing with government property, when the only things that actually suffered were the hammer and your wrist.

I heard a Jesuit Priest named John Dear (cohort of the Berrigans) speak last week, at a church here in Sarasota, and in passing, he mentioned that he cannot vote, because he is a felon, arrested some eighty times for participating in peace demonstrations. He is devoting his life to pursuing peaceful solutions to problems, rather than violent ones. How about a pardon for him? He has never hurt a fly. Why is the right to vote denied him? Because he is a felon. But he is a felon because he is a pacifist. Is it the custom in this Democracy to deny the vote to pacifists? Or only to pacifists who refuse to keep their opinions to themselves?

What has happened to us?

This is clearly an issue with thorns. I wonder if the whole custom of the presidential pardon should be sacked, or failing that, perhaps we ought to rethink our tradition of this heretofore unquestioned plenary amnesty and appoint a supreme Judicial Ethicist-in-Chief to oversee presidential pardons, to study them, and then to determine whether or not the pardons themselves are by any stretch of the imagination deserved, whether they are decent in sense and motivation, whether they are acts of integrity or, conversely smack of whim, arbitrary choice, reward, self-interest, or even criminal conspiracy. Perhaps the pardons themselves call for prosecution. Prosecution of the once-and-for-all type.

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