The recent incidents at our nation’s capital and heated political quarrels they inspire across our country, bring to my mind compelling lines written by playwright Robert Bolt in "A Man for All Seasons." I refer to an interchange in the play between Sir Thomas More and William Roper. More was the saintly Chancellor of England in the 16th Century under King Henry VIII — who beheaded him. Roper was a passionate, righteous lawyer and the fiancé of More’s daughter.
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil the benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you -- where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast -- man's laws, not God's -- and if you cut them down -- and you're just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.
(Vintage Books, 1960, pp. 37-38)
I don’t believe the rioting at the Capitol Building seriously endangered our American democracy. I fear, however, that the sweeping demonizing and unsubstantiated condemnation of fellow Americans on different ends of the ideological spectrum that seem unconcerned with law -- may. My fear is grounded in a complicated personal journey.
I’ve walked on both sides of the American ideological divide. As a young and emphatically patriotic person I enlisted in the U.S. military; as an aged person I became a pacifist.
I’ve also been on both sides of the 4th and 5th Amendments.
As a cop I searched and arrested people, reading them their rights and handcuffing them.
Later in life I was arrested while peacefully protesting against nuclear weapons on a public highway that traverses a military base. I refused to present identification when ordered to do so by military police. I believed this violated my rights against unlawful search and to due process. The military disagreed, and cited me for a violation carrying a potential fine of $100,000 and a year in prison.
The U.S. Attorney’s office eventually dismissed the charge. But I remember clinging to the Constitution like I was hanging from a cliff, dangling over a chasm of personal ruin and great harm to my family.
Our Constitution and law must work for the Left and the Right -- and vice versa -- no matter how difficult this is for Americans to swallow as we find our way through the course of history.
And what of Mr. Trump and other Republican leaders who find themselves under fire and being called to resign? If the Constitution is to serve me, it must also serve them.
I’ve disdained Donald Trump’s dishonoring of fallen soldiers, his unjust treatment of immigrants and people of color, and his tenuous hold on truth. Nonetheless, he was legitimately elected president in 2016. Then he legitimately lost the election in 2020, but over 74 million Americans voted for him.
Yes, Americans are divided.
But division is part of our country’s DNA. It is enabled — indeed prescribed -- by our Constitution. So are means for constructive and civil discourse. Such discourse is essential because both ends of the ideological spectrum are capable of tyranny.
Americans are called to be people of law and process; to be constantly wary of justifying our means by what we see as our ends.
Scott Fina is a Santa Maria resident.
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