Commentary: Do we need the concept of 'political crime'?
Imagine yourself a citizen of the old Soviet Union. (Plus there are other places this would/will apply)
And imagine you felt that the “American way” was superior to the “Soviet way”.
You’d better not say so.
We can all imagine you being sent to build a railroad using the bare hands of you and your fellow inmates in Siberia with only the clothes on your back at the time of arrest and a daily ration of one cup of cold, chicken foot quasi-soup per day. This would have happened to you not just because those who pissed off the communist party were toast, but because espousing some foreign political/social/economic policy really and actually did violate one or more of their statutes.
Stating that your Soviet society would be better off using western ways violated their law in a literal sense. I think of it as a ‘political crime’ and I think the Soviets used the same term.
It’s one of the reasons we despised the Soviets. And while I happen to think that our anti-Soviet attitude became hysterical and self-defeating in some ways, I’ll gladly agree that we were correct in despising and resisting a concept like this.
America does not recognize the concept of political crime. At least not in the sense of criminalizing the mere support of other ways of doing things. The 1st amendment to the Constitution obviously stands completely opposed to the very idea.
How about an American who passed intelligence to the Soviets? Not for money, but because they ‘believed in’ the Soviet Union? We’d be likely to say, “The politics of that situation takes a back seat to the fact that they did actual damage to us. That’s the crime”. Yes, it makes sense. But the political nature of this crime can’t be denied. Whether we’d care to recognize it or not, calling this a political crime would not be inapt.
Then there’s McCarthy-ism which sought to punish political activity more like my first example. Having been a communist party member briefly while in college was enough to wreck long standing State Dept careers for instance. (Alger Hiss is who brought that description to mind.)
This was an obvious 1st amendment violation. But, then, McCarthy and his enablers were behaving lawlessly. At least our statutes didn’t define communist party membership in itself as a crime.
Aside from anomalies like McCarthy-ism I’ve been unable to see instances where America has embraced the concept of political crime. At least we’ve been reluctant to actually write it into our laws.
Were the Confederates guilty of political crime? I’ve never heard anyone put it like that. But the idea seems compelling.
How about someone who colludes with Russia in order to influence our election? The guilty Americans involved might have had only the most selfish motives and they might not have had the intelligence and ability to recognize the horrible betrayal they were committing. (Guilty, nonetheless.) But the Russians, in this purely hypothetical scenario, were surely involved in something both sides would agree was largely political. And we’d insist that it was a crime.
There’s a right wing attitude of recent decades which I don’t think I’ve ever heard spoken explicitly, yet I can perceive it in much of the other things they say. It could be stated this way; “You support that rotten, corrupt liberal party? You’re a traitor to us patriots and you deserve any and all punishment that we can manage to give you”. Now there’s someone who believes in political crime. But their lame-brained logical structure is built out of chicken wire and Elmer’s glue. So we can’t grant them any intellectual credibility.
But there’s a flip side to the wingnuts concept of political crime. We look at them, and their speech and actions, and what we see are people who really are willing to burn everything down if it only means that they can ‘stick it to the libs’. I look at that and I feel pretty sure that I’m seeing criminal politics.
I’ve been reminded lately of Jack Merridew and his hunters from “Lord of the Flies”. At the end they were willing to burn their own island if it only meant that they could corner Ralph. Ralph had done them no harm and they had nothing to fear from him. Yet they were going to sacrifice his head to the beast and they were likely going to eat the rest of him. It would have been their last meal while the island finished burning, for that matter. Yet they’d have done it if they hadn’t been interrupted.
We have people on the right who really are willing to burn down the entire island if it only means that they can sacrifice us to the beast. Are they guilty of political or ideological crime?
So to re-phrase the question in my title; Should we give official sanction to the concept of political crime?
Here’s my answer. I don’t know.
It’s tempting, of course. But there’s bound to be all sorts of devils in the details. How do you implement such a huge, even dangerous, principle correctly?
The Founders probably considered a question like that. And they probably decided that it’s best not to go into that particular minefield at all.
But if we satisfy ourselves with only the electoral defeat of our enemies, then these people will be back to threaten our children or grandchildren.
What do we do about it?
Editor's note: This article was originally tun at the Daily Kos, which states that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified."