Saturday, January 24, 2009

Some rules really are golden...

I have a fundamental belief in how the universe works. I believe everything in the end balances out. One of the things which first brought me out of my “everyone has to believe just like me” shell was recognizing balance as a major factor in most of the belief systems of the world. “Karma” has several interpretations in the world of Eastern Religion, but stays true to the concept of balance. Sure, some forms of Hindu karma say it is delivered by the Supreme Being while Buddhism sees it more as one of the building blocks of natural law, but the idea is our deeds (in fact the word itself is derived from a Sanskrit word for “deeds” or “actions”) affect what happens in the world. Our actions carry repercussions, consequences, and we have a responsibility to act properly to make those consequences turn out for the best.

Just before the time of Rabbi Jesus, Judaism came under the influence of a Rabbi named Hillel. Hillel, who basically established Rabbinic law, codified the ethic of reciprocity for the Jews. As the story goes, a foreigner (rejected by another Jewish leader at the time as being unfit for God's law because he was not a Jew) complained to Hillel there were too many rules to follow in the Jewish religion. Following his rejection at the hands of the other Rabbi, the foreigner felt he could never understand Judaism unless it could be simple enough for Hillel to explain while standing on one foot. Hillel raised his foot and said, “that which is hateful to you, don't do it to your neighbor; the rest is commentary.” So, this great teacher reduces the entire Torah, Talmud, and Mishnah to little more than an explanation of why God's law is the ethic of reciprocity- balance.

Then of course, in our Western tradition, comes that Rabbi Jesus I mentioned earlier. He takes it a step further. See, the Eastern idea was one allowed the balance to happen- Karma was a matter of course. Hillel said you should adjust your behavior to not do bad things. Jesus comes along and says “do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law of the prophets (Mt 7:12).” It has become active at this point- you are to go actively do good.

One of the most important tenants of this rule is the object of its application. To whom are we to do good? Jesus makes it pretty plain he thinks it applies to everyone. In the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 we see Jesus point out to a fellow Jew that the term 'neighbor' applied to the Samaritan man in the parable (this is right after the whole love your neighbor as yourself thing). We forget that to the Jews of the first century, the Samaritans were held in about as low regard as you could get. Tell yourself this story, but substitute a Christian for the Priest, a Jew for the Levite, and an Islamic Fundamentalist Mujahadin in Afghanistan for the Samaritan and you'll get the idea what Jesus was talking about. Now, it would seem Jesus himself didn't have this lesson at first- when in Matthew 15 a Canaanite woman asks him for his help in exorcising a demon from her daughter, he initially refuses saying he's only there for the Jews, but she convinces him to do more, and he does. What's the lesson?

The tenants of faith don't just apply to the adherents of that faith. You don't just do unto other Christians as you would have them do unto you, you do unto EVERYONE as you would have them do unto you. I love my neighbor as myself even if he's a lowdown, dirty Samaritan. The Laws of God are good enough to apply to everyone, whether they believe in it or not. Regardless of a person's own belief or origin, Christians must treat everyone as they treat Christians, Jews must treat everyone as they treat Jews, and karma will get you if you are chubby Gautama or skinny Siddhartha (yeah, I know really they are the same guy, but it sounds poetic, doesn't it?). What does this mean to us today?

The philosophical edict of universalizability. Immanuel Kant in the 18th Century said the only way to judge an ethical philosophy was by its application; should it be applied as a natural law? If an ethic is truly right, it has to apply to everyone. So, Kant extends the idea of the “Golden Rule,” the great balance, beyond religion and into philosophy- if a set of ethics or rules are truly good, they must be applied universally, just as karma will catch everyone, not doing bad things is the whole of the law, and even the jerk who lives down the street is the neighbor to whom you should do good things. Kant summarizes the simple fact that our ethics, like our religion, aren't only for those who share our ethics but are for everyone.

Anyone who knows me or has read this blog knows I have a passion for the Constitution of the United States that borders on, and perhaps illegally immigrates into, religious fervor. I have literally sworn a solemn oath to support, defend, and bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution. Establishing a government ruled by the people, ensuring and enumerating rights held by the people, codifying the process for peaceful transfer of leadership as dictated by the people-- these are not just words to me. To establish Justice and ensure domestic tranquility, ensure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity is a mantra of faith to me. To whom do we do this?

If I truly believe in the greatness of our codified law, in the power of our democratic republic, I have a moral and ethical obligation to apply to protections of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to everyone, regardless of their citizenship. If I truly believe the ideas of presumed innocence and right to a speedy and fair trial are morally right, I must insist on their application to everyone, regardless of their origin. Universalizability, the Golden Rule, makes it a moral imperative to grant equal protection under the law to everyone, despite their adherence to the law.

That's why we have to afford the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay Holding Facility a trial by jury. See, I have faith in our system. I think our system is good enough to apply to terrorists as well as criminals. I think its good enough to apply to citizens and foreigners alike. I believe in America. I believe in the inherent rights of Habeas Corpus, and I argue here that those rights must be applied universally if we are truly to claim our system as morally just.

Should we proceed with these trials, is it possible some legitimately bad people will be acquitted? Of course, it happens in our criminal justice system every day. As Americans we accept the fact protection of individual rights is more important than locking someone up. “Blackstone's ratio” is a common edict in our courts; that is the idea that it is better for ten guilty persons to escape than one innocent person to suffer. William Blackstone was an English jurist in the 1700s, and author of Commentaries on the Laws of England, which heavily influenced our Constitutional framers and has been cited as recently as Clarence Thomas in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Despite the possibility some “terrorists” would go free, the majority will find justice in a trial by jury. Additionally, we would again show ourselves to be an example to the world as a nation and people who practice Democracy not as a convenience but as an obligation. We would demonstrate again the moral certitude and convictions inherent in a fair system which guarantees equal protection under the law. There is no better method of spreading democracy than practicing it.

That's really the key isn't it? The acts of these extremists are by design intended to change how we think. The definition of terrorism is the “use of violence or intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” The political aim here was to hurt the way we conduct our nation. The unfortunate truth is, it succeeded. In response to their attacks, we adopted their methods rather than employ our own. We suspended our ideals of trial by jury, and legal representation, and presumption of innocence under the rationale of “they would do the same or worse to us.”

Of course they would. They're terrorists.

The Golden Rule doesn't say do unto others as they did it unto you, it says as you would have them do unto you. The fourteenth amendment while defining citizenship also states you can't deny equal protection to any person within the state's jurisdiction. Do we as a people really feel it's OK to circumvent these ideals by simply not bringing them within the borders of the United States? Why have we sought ways to avoid granting the guarantees of the system we seek to protect? The ethic of reciprocity dictates we must apply our laws to everyone, or else they are nothing more than words on paper, and not ideals of ethics and morality. I can't believe that's true. I didn't take an oath to protect words, I took an oath to protect ideals we as Americans should all share, despite our individual differences. Ideals which can light the world when properly exemplified.

You see, I believe in the Constitution. I have faith in its edicts, it protections and its punishments. I believe it was written for all time, and not just for times of expediency or convenience. I believe it is strong enough to survive any onslaught from a foreign enemy. I believe it is strong enough to withstand any testimony of a foreign fighter. I believe granting trial to the prisoners at Guantanamo will not weaken our Constitution, but rather will bolster it.

I believe, as with any system of faith, there is only one thing which can destroy the Constitution: its own adherents allowing it to pass away. We can do better. We can continue to ensure the blessings of liberty to our posterity. We only have to do what it says unto others, Samaritans and all.

1 comment:

Speedy said...

I think you are spot on! I have an inherent feeling that the basic premise and foundation of this country is unique and has a greater purpose for the future. Just thinking of the potentiality of this nation operating under the intentions of the founding fathers makes me heady with the possibilities. Unfortunately, regardless of the perfection of the process, the human aspect is its weakness. Whether from our forgetfulness of the past or our laziness in soul searching to determine if we are indeed doing the 'right' thing, we as humans fail the system. Our lust for "JUSTICE" has superceded our responsibility to ensure that the 'right' action is conducted. (Ma'at is the ancient egyptian concept of 'rightness' or order and balance - as opposed to righteousness. I think there is even an equivalent word in Hebrew) But preach on, Brother! You will get an "Amen!" from me! :)