Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Language Game of Clemency

Tim Dickinson, who writes the National Affairs Daily blog for Rolling Stone, is right: Language is important, not just "in moments like this," as Dickenson put it in his piece on the commutation of Scooter Libby's jail sentence, but in the who scene set by the context of our times. In their televised report the BBC emphasized the noun "commutation," making it clear that this was not a pardon, although on the Web page for this story, there is no mention of either commutation or pardon. However, Dickenson pointed out that the title of the formal proclamation by George W. Bush that commutes Libby's sentence is "Grant of Executive Clemency;" and Dickinson uses the semantics of "clemency" as the basis for his own reaction:

Clemency is an emotive word. It appeals to our sense of mercy. Clemency is something we should give to the Georgia teenager whose girlfriend gave him head at a party and now is in prison for aggravated child molestation. It’s reserved for those instances where following the letter of the law creates a greater injustice than the crime.

Scooter covered up illicit actions at the highest levels of our government. Libby lied. Intentionally. To the F-B-fucking-I.

If you or I did that we’d be flirting with Gitmo.

The clemency a rogue sheriff tried to give Paris Hilton provoked nationwide outrage. Clemency for a Bush crony should rile us no less.

Now in at least some fairness to the President, the BBC report had Bush describing Libby's 30-month prison sentence as "excessive;" so, in Bush's opinion at least, this was a case where following the letter of the law did create a greater injustice than the crime. On the other hand, as one reads further into the BBC account, one encounters considerable disagreement with Bush's opinion. Unfortunately, these are not times in which we can hold reasoned argumentation over differences of opinion. They are not even times in which Harry Reid's rhetoric on the harsh judgment of history will carry much weight. They may not even be times in which decisions are based on the convictions of faith, rather than the disciplines of reason championed by Enlightenment thinking. These may just be times in which power is all that matters, whether in government, business, or even leisure time. In such times power may be exercised for no reason other than the plain fact that it can be exercised, and no amount of rationality can put a crack in the soundness of that harsh proposition.

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