the cloak of self-interest

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. We’ve all heard that. It was originally said by Dr. Samuel Johnson in April of 1775, and recorded that same evening by his biographer James Boswell. What usually gets left out, though, are the rest of Boswell’s comments.

Patriotism having become one of our topicks, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone, an apophthegm, at which many will start: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak of self-interest.

It’s that last bit that matters most. That ‘cloak of self-interest’ business. By that measure, Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, is a patriot.

Senator Lindsey Graham cloaked in self-interest

Senator Lindsey Graham, cloaked in self-interest

Graham is regarded by the right wing conservative Christian branch of the Republican Party (which, let’s face it, is the main branch these days) as a closeted ‘Nancy-boy’ who is a Republican In Name Only. Since he’s facing re-election next year, and is alarmed at the notion of being forced to run against a Tea Party candidate in a primary election, Graham has been trying to butch up and present himself as more conservative. One way he does that is by talking tough on terrorism and immigration.

Graham has said he wants Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving member of the brothers accused of the Boston Marathon bombing, to be treated as an enemy combatant. He specifically tweeted that position:

The Law of War allows us to hold individual in this scenario as potential enemy combatant w/o Miranda warnings or appointment of counsel.

The phrase ‘enemy combatant,’ by the way, isn’t just a generic description; it’s a legal term of art. It has a specific legal definition which is too tedious to repeat, but here’s how it’s generally defined by the U.S. Department of Defense:

In general, a person engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners during an armed conflict.

Graham is a lawyer; he knows this. What happens if Tsarnaev is declared an enemy combatant? Two important things. First, the status and rights of an enemy combatant are different than those of an accused criminal. As Graham said in his tweet, enemy combatants are held according to the Laws of War — they don’t get lawyers and they aren’t charged with crimes; they can be grilled for intelligence about the enemy, though, and then like the captured pieces in chess they’re removed from the board until the game is over.

Basically, Graham wants to Gitmo this kid’s sorry ass. And an awful lot of people agree with him. They seem to believe that because the Tsarnaev brothers were Muslims and because their parents are Chechens, that the bombing must be related to Islamic extremism and ethnic nationalism. From what I’ve read about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, that may accurately describe his motivations. From what I’ve read about Dzhokhar (who by most accounts is a stoner who switched colleges because he preferred the party atmosphere of the new school), it doesn’t seem to describe him at all.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

The second reason a move to designate Dzhokhar Tsarnaev an enemy combatant is important is because it removes him from the criminal justice system. If, as Graham wants, we treat this kid as an enemy combatant, we’re required to view him as a soldier in a war rather than as a criminal who committed a crime. To my mind, that elevates Tsarnaev’s actions; it gives them a dignity they don’t deserve. A soldier who infiltrates enemy territory and commits an audacious assault is a hero to his people. This kid wasn’t attacking enemies; he was just killing and mutilating innocent people. He doesn’t deserve to be treated as a warrior; he deserves to be treated as a common criminal.

For people like Lindsey Graham, the problem with being a common criminal is that accused criminals have rights. They have, among others, the right to remain silent, the right not to be forced to incriminate themselves, the right to legal counsel, and the right to a speedy trial by a jury of their peers. And if those rights are to have any meaning at all, they have to be given to every person accused of a crime, even if that person is blatantly and obviously guilty of an exceedingly heinous crime.

This what offends Graham and his cohort — the notion that we, as a nation, have to provide and protect the rights of a person who committed a horrific crime. They apparently interpret this approach as protecting the guilty. It’s not. Not really. It’s protecting the innocent. I’m not suggesting Dzhokhar is innocent; I’m saying that in order to protect the truly innocent, the rights of the accused have to be afforded to everybody accused. It’s not about protecting the guilty, it’s about protecting society. It’s about protecting the things we believe in.

What Graham believes in is getting re-elected. So he’s talking tough. He’s not thinking (or he doesn’t care) about the larger reality. If we were to put this kid in Guantanamo, he’d become something of a martyr. If we put him in prison, he’s just another criminal.

I happened to watch an old episode of the second season of The West Wing last night. The episode takes place shortly after an attempt is made to murder the President’s body man, a young African-American. Some of the White House staff are angry because the law protects the people who tried to murder their friend. One of the characters shakes his head and asks “What can you say about a country that protects the very people who trying to destroy it?” After a dramatic pause, another character responds, “God bless America.”

I don’t believe in God. But despite all the many reasons not to, I do believe in the United States of America. I believe in it enough to protect the rights of its citizens, even if that citizen is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — even if it’s his brother Tamarlan. I believe this nation is made stronger by protecting those rights. And I believe Lindsey Graham is a patriot. At least by Johnson’s definition.

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