The Trial that Still Must Come — The Death of Osama bin Laden and the Limits of Human Justice

As is always the case, we are left with a sense that a higher court is still needed. Christians know that Osama bin Laden escaped the reach of full human justice and a trial for his crimes, but he will not escape the judgment that is to come. Bin Laden will not escape his trial before the court of God. Until then, sober satisfaction must be enough for those still in the land of the living.

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When Telling the Truth “Isn’t a Risk Worth Taking”

Writing at The Los Angeles Times, Professor Michael Klarman of the Harvard Law School argues that American presidents often do not get far ahead of public opinion on controversial matters — especially on matters of moral combat.

In making his case, Klarman argues that President Abraham Lincoln “was a relative latecomer to the abolitionist cause,” driven by Union losses on the battlefield to free the slaves. He argues further that Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy worked slowly on the issue of civil rights. Kennedy, he asserts, did not move to support civil rights within the first two years of his presidency because he needed the political support of conservative Democrats in order to achieve re-election.

Writing on “The Political Risks of Supporting Gay Rights,” Klarman explains that President Bill Clinton ran on a platform to eliminate the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, but he was forced to compromise after facing opposition from the military and congressional leaders. President Barack Obama, he reports, ran on a platform to eliminate all discrimination against persons on the basis of sexual orientation but resisted any affirmation of same-sex marriage. Klarman attributes the President’s position to political necessity and polling.

In two very interesting paragraphs, he writes:

Public opinion on gay marriage has continued to evolve since 2004, when the nation opposed it by a margin of roughly 2 to 1. Most recent polls still show majority opposition, but the margin has shrunk to less than 10 percentage points. One well-respected statistician has estimated that by 2012 or 2013, a majority of people in a majority of states will support gay marriage.

Should Obama be reelected in 2012, he almost certainly will endorse gay marriage during his second term. By then, a majority of Americans, and an overwhelming majority of Democrats, will support the practice. Could Obama shift his position before 2012 without endangering his chances at a second term? Possibly.

Klarman’s analysis is interesting, but his prediction is fascinating. He openly predicts that President Obama “almost certainly will endorse gay marriage during his second term,” and he attributes the President’s current lack of open support for same-sex marriage to political necessity.

Klarman concludes:

But in many of the states that proved to be battlegrounds in the 2008 presidential campaign — Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida — majorities still oppose same-sex marriage. A presidential pronouncement in favor would rally conservative opposition and could prove crucial to some swing voters. For many political progressives who believe that the issue already may have cost Democrats one presidential election (and, with it, two Supreme Court appointments), the risk isn’t worth taking.

We can only wonder: how many politicians on both the right and the left take their positions based on such a political calculation? Apparently, for far too many, the risk of telling the truth “isn’t worth taking.”

Reading Log, August 6, 2009 Public Enemies

To be human, it seems, is to be fascinated with crime. This simple fact explains why so much of our popular entertainment is driven by narratives and plots dealing with crime, crimefighters, criminals, and the police. News about crime and criminals often takes the top position in the newspaper and leads the nightly news.

From a Christian worldview perspective, this is actually quite understandable. Our Creator gifted us with a moral sense and the capacity of conscience. At some very early age, sin becomes an active part of our consciousness. As we grow older, we grow more and more aware of our own capacity for wrongdoing. The spectacular evil represented by notorious criminals becomes a fascination hard to resist. This can be healthy if a closer look at crime and criminality brings greater moral discernment and deeper insight into the reality of human depravity. On the other hand, a preoccupation with criminality can reflect a fascination with evil that must never be granted.

Millions of Americans have gone to see the movie “Public Enemies,” starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger and Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis of the FBI. In the course of the movie, viewers are reminded of the gangster era of the 1930s and notorious characters including Machine Gun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and a host of others. But, whereas the movie reduces the story of this era to only a handful of its most famous personalities, the book upon which the movie is based offers far more.

The movie is based on Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 by Bryan Burrough. I put the book in my stack for summer reading and, once I had begun reading the book I could hardly put it down.

Burrough drew his research directly from the records of the FBI. He takes his reader right to the scene of the crime, so to speak, tracing the rise of these infamous gangsters and placing the era within its own fascinating historical context. By the time the reader finishes the book, Public Enemies has offered a short course in America during the Great Depression, the rise of America’s most famous gangsters, and the emergence of the FBI as a respected law enforcement agency.

“When one looks back across a chasm of 70 years, through a prism of pulp fiction and bad gangster movies, there is a tendency to view the events of 1933-34 as mythic, as folkloric,” Burrough writes. An entire generation of Americans knew these gangsters as contemporaries, but the passage of time has obscured their history. As Burrough writes, “After decades spent in the washing machine of popular culture, their stories have been bled of all reality, to an extent that few Americans today know who these people actually were, much less that they all rose to national prominence at the same time.”

The cultural and historical context of the gangster era is truly interesting. Before the rise of these criminals, Americans associated organized crime with immigrants and cities. But the stereotypical gangster of the 1930s was raised on a farm with what most Americans had assumed to be typical American values. They had names like Barker, Floyd, Nelson, and Dillinger. They were home-grown criminals.

Burrough also points to the context of the Great Depression and the fact that so many Americans blamed the banks for their own economic distress. When the gangsters started robbing banks, many Americans saw them as modern versions of Robin Hood. But when the scene turned ugly, with bodies strewn from one crime scene to another, Americans demanded action.

At this point J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI enter the picture. Burrough traces the rise of the FBI during the “war on crime” declared by Hoover. As his careful telling of the story makes clear, the emergence of the FBI as a credible national law enforcement agency was anything but inevitable. The states did not want a national police agency and the structure of American law made the formation and functioning of a national law enforcement agency extremely difficult. When FBI agents first began investigating the gangsters, they were not even allowed to carry guns. As Burrough demonstrates, it was the gangsters who made the FBI what it is today. The FBI owes much of its current stature to these early years when its first agents transformed themselves from incompetent investigators into skilled crimefighters.

Burrough tells the story in such a way that the reader will understand why these infamous gangsters appeared as such glamorous figures to the public. Yet, as the story unfolds the gangsters lose their glamour as the evil and murderous violence of their crime spree shocked Americans into understanding evil in a whole new context.

Bryan Burrough tells the story well and documents his account with care. Readers will be fascinated with the twists and turns of the story and with the sheer audacity of figures on both sides of the “war on crime.” Beyond this, the details reveal just how far this story reaches into our history. I was fascinated to learn that J. Frank Norris, one of the best-known fundamentalist preachers of Baptist history, had once sought to negotiate the surrender of pretty boy Floyd to the FBI. Similar surprises abound within the book.

An excerpt:

The spread of bank robberies was the result of technology outstripping the legal system. Faster, more powerful weapons, especially the 800-bullet-per-minute Thompson submachine gun introduced after World War I, allowed yeggs (gangsters) to outgun all but the best-armed urban policeman. But the greatest impetus was the automobile, especially new models with reliable, powerful V-8 engines. While a county sheriff was still hand-cranking his old Model A, a modern yegg could speed away untouched. A Frenchman may have been the first to use a car to escape a bank robbery, in 1915; one of the first Americans to try it was an aging Oklahoma yegg, Henry Starr, who used a Nash to rob a bank in Harrison, Arkansas, in 1921. The practice caught on.