Policy and Pragmatism

I am opposed to capital punishment, abortion and torture. Those are my policies. However, I have learned that policy is not immutable doctrine. It’s more like a map that helps us find our way. A locomotive engineer does not need a map. His steel wheels are going to follow where the rails lead and his options are limited to the few track switches on his route. Some who adhere to policy are like railroad engineers and others are more like motorists. I think I tend to be like the latter.

There are several reasons I believe capital punishment should be abolished, first and foremost is that innocent individuals will inevitably be wrongfully convicted and executed in our imperfect legal system. Folks found to be innocent after years of incarceration can be released and compensated but there is no remedy for a corpse who is vindicated after the fact.

Then there is the argument that Clarence Darrow used in defending those young privileged sociopaths, Leopold and Loeb. He argued that state-sponsored homicide appeals to our worst nature and thereby diminishes our humanity. The United States is one of the few industrialized nations that continue to sanction executing felons. I agree, capital punishment is an archaic holdover from the Dark Ages and should be abolished.

Then I am confronted by the case of a serial pedophile, who after being judged guilty in an extensive trial, admits to having tortured and murdered small children, and I find it very hard to support my own stated policy. I want absolute assurance that man will never harm another child, even if that means execution.

Abortion is a tragedy for all involved. I believe as a matter of policy, we should do all we can to prevent and avoid the aborting of fetuses. I do not believe aborting a fetus of several days is morally equivalent to abortion at six months but any termination of life is, as far as I am concerned, a sad thing.

Then, I am confronted by the case of a fourteen-year-old who is pregnant through rape by her drug-addicted, psychotic father, or the case of a young mother of two who was assaulted and gang-raped. Now, I am forced to concede that abortion is the lesser of two evils. I cannot justify my policy to force a teenager or young mother to bear a child that will be a reminder of her horrible experience for the rest of her life.

I find it hard to impose my morality on those who, after much soul-searching, arrive at a different policy regarding abortion because I understand there are no clear or simple choices, even though some may feel otherwise. So, I tend to emphasize prevention of unwanted pregnancies through education and contraception rather than prohibition of a woman’s right to choose to abort.

Finally, the euphemism, “extraordinary interrogation techniques” is one I find to be especially revolting. We all understand the term refers to torture, and calling it something else does not mitigate its obnoxious nature. State-sanctioned torture should be abolished, period. There is no rational justification for using these dehumanizing tactics to gain information. Aside from the demonstrated fact that information obtained through torture is completely unreliable and often leads to poor decision-making, it is just wrong.

However, ask me to serve on a jury and vote to convict an intelligence officer who uses force on a known terrorist to attempt to get information to save his wife and child from an imminent impending attack, and my policy may just have to bend a little. That defendant is probably going to walk out of the courtroom a free man. However, my policy remains intact, state-sanctioned torture is wrong and should not be the policy of the United States of America, even though I may have a personal reservation based on specific facts at hand.

To some, my equivocation on stated positions may seem hypocritical. The point I am attempting to illustrate is that it is easy for us to construct our ideologies as long as we are not confronted with the nuances of real life situations. An individual’s policies, as well as those of a company, a church or an elected government, all have one thing in common – they are all maps, not railroad tracks.

The reason we give judges discretion in sentencing convicted criminals is that no law can be written in such a way as to anticipate the mitigating factors of each and every situation that may arise. Larceny is a crime but most agree that stealing a loaf of bread to keep a family from starving is not morally equivalent to stealing the life savings of a retiree who is barely meeting expenses.

If we are to plan for the future (which I believe we must), we need to understand that we cannot contemplate every contingency, which means we must craft our policies to guide us through and not restrain us from dealing with the many obstacles that lie ahead, just out of view. That, too, is my policy.

This content was submitted by the author, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Harrisonburg Times.

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This post was submitted by David Rood.

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