Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Wheels of Justice

On April 11, 2007, a terrible miscarriage of justice was averted when North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper dismissed all charges against the three Duke students accused of a variety of crimes that never actually happened.

One might wonder why I took almost two weeks to chime in on it. Mainly, I wanted some time to chew on a couple of issues. I've been considering, pretty deeply, a comment noted by Instapundit on the day after the dismissal. To wit: "A lefty blogger wonders why people care." Never mind that it's a lefty, it's a serious question, worthy of serious consideration. And so, why indeed? Why have I even paid a moment's attention to this case? Several points follow:

Numero Uno: Presumption of innocence. It is difficult indeed to overstate the importance of this principle. I don't always follow it scrupulously myself, and so find myself jumping to wrong conclusions at times. This principle has evolved over the years precisely for this reason: when we rush to judgement, we often rush to the wrong judgement. We need to wait for the information to come in, need to evaluate the evidence, then make a decision. But with some people, all it takes is an accusation to convince them. Especially if it's an emotionally charged situation, and especially if the alleged victim is of a particularly (ahem) victim-worthy group. BUT THAT'S WRONG! A man's reputation is a very fragile thing. All it can take is one slanderous whisper to ruin it. Upholding the presumption of innocence protects all of us, by forcing us to examine the actual evidence.

Numero Two-O: Presumption of innocence. I realize that, technically, this is the same as Numero Uno. But I thought it was so important, it deserved mentioning twice.

Numero Three-O: Correct Police Procedure. When you have the entire weight and awful majesty of the State arrayed against one man, it is absolutely imperative that the authorities adhere to their procedures scrupulously. It is far too easy for the State to manufacture convenient evidence, to tinker with suspect line-ups, to cherry-pick what they show or don't show to a grand jury. As one law enforcement professional told me once, you could indict a ham sandwich for larceny if you really wanted to. It is far too easy for the State to railroad someone with the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time into a lengthy prison sentence, and this has happened more often than we'd like to admit. We must be absolute sticklers on this point. Yes, we occasionally free the guilty on technicalities, but we also keep innocent men out of prison. That's worth something, isn't it?

Numero Four-O: Exculpatory Evidence. A subset of Numero Three-O to be sure, but worthy of mention. When you have ironclad, tamper-proof evidence that you cannot possibly have been in the same building that the crime was committed, that must be taken into account. When the case hinges on genetic material left by the perpetrator, and yours does not match, meaning that there is no possible way that you could been the one to do the deed, that must be taken into account. Next door in Dallas County, many men have been set free this year alone because new DNA tests on case evidence has proven that these men could not possibly have been guilty of the crimes for which they've been imprisoned. Some of these men have been in prison for ten, twenty years -- or more. How much better, if we can rule out innocent men before conviction, even before indictment? Naturally, hiding exculpatory evidence should be -- and is -- beyond the pale. Prosecutors who do this are beneath contempt.

All that said, the Duke players are undisputably, undeniably guilty of one thing. In my opinion, they are guilty of crass, boorish behavior that probably shamed their families when it came out. And one sure lesson you can draw from this case is that there are problems that a young man will never have, if he does not attend parties where a stripper will be present. But crass drunkenness and lechery, deplorable as they may be, are not legally actionable. You expect young men to exhibit the occasional lapse in judgement.

In a sane world, we'd have never heard about it. The lack of physical evidence, and the constantly shifting story from the accuser, would have sunk the case before it went to a grand jury. But it's not a sane world, and three families spent a great deal of money defending their sons against false charges. But at least it's a just world, once in a while, and they're free men today. More, the despicable shyster responsible for this farce will, in due course, be disbarred and lose his job. AG Cooper's statement on the 11th ripped Nifong up one side and down the other. It's pretty rare to see one official tear into another so viciously, and probably a precursor of paddlings to come. When it's all over, I wouldn't be surprised to see Mike Nifong in an orange jumpsuit.

So that's why I care. I love my country, and I support my government -- but I want 'em to keep their hands where I can see 'em. They work for me, not the other way around, and some of them forget that from time to time.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Go Tell The Spartans

As much as I enjoyed 300, I find the reviews to be just about as entertaining. Once you understand a few things about reviewers, the reviews practically write themselves.

For starters, in liberal intellectual circles (and, pray tell, what other circles would a movie reviewer move in?) it's the height of fashion to sneer at soldiers and soldierly virtues. They'll accept a "war" movie, provided that it's got the requisite amount of "balance", that the "heroes" are suitably cynical, and that nobody does anything particularly admirable. If it shows soldiers as being at best deeply conflicted and at worst mindless homicidal maniacs, excellent. If it shows clear-minded patriots, it's to be scorned.

Second, it's pretty common amongst bookish people to have varying degrees of resentment for people in better physical condition. They look at someone who's obviously spent a fair amount of time on their physique, and sneer, "Well, he's probably not all that bright." Never mind that Dolph Lundgren attended MIT on a Fulbright scholarship. Granted, he's unusual, but a healthy mind in a healthy body is an ideal we can all strive for. But you can always count on some sour-grapes carping, from some who feel that their minds are not as well-appreciated as they think they should be.

And third, it's also very stylish in lefty sets to sneer at anything that might possibly put America and American values in a positive light. No need to elaborate, there; blackguarding America is a well-known cottage industry on the left. Case in point: virtually everything Michael Moore has ever been involved with.

As I say, the reviews practically write themselves. I see a drinking game: print out a bunch of these reviews, and take a shot whenever you see a predictably snarky comment. Except that you'll probably lose the ability to read a coherent sentence after the second or third review.

This just goes to show how truly, how deeply, how consistently they just don't get it.

People have gone to this movie in droves, despite the reviews, because it's a deeply resonant story. It's one of the watershed moments in history, brought to rampaging life. Yes, painted with a broad brush, and yes, liberties were taken, but the main point is still there.

The real facts are this: Xerxes had come to Greece with the world's largest army, and the world's largest navy. He had conquest in mind. Most Greek city-states were busy with their Olympic games, or the Carneia in the case of the Spartans. But nonetheless something had to be done. Leonidas, King of Sparta, assembled a force to hold the narrow pass at Thermopylae. He picked only men who had fathered male children to carry on their families, because he knew he wouldn't be coming back.

The movie does not relay Leonidas' last words to his wife, Gorgo. When she asked him what she should do while he was gone, he replied, "Marry a good man, and have good sons."

When Xerxes found the pass blocked, he dithered for several days about what to do. There was no landward passage around. Nor could he sail around with his navy, since the Athenian navy under Themistocles was blocking that route. There was only one thing for it: try to carry the pass by main force.

The story is fairly well-known from there: they fought for three days, until a traitor named Ephialtes showed Xerxes a shepherd's path around to the Spartans' rear. Thus surrounded, the Spartans were killed to a man. But not before they had exacted a fearful toll. They slew fully a hundred Persians for every Greek that fell.

Even after the battle, it took time for Xerxes to get his army moving again. You don't start -- or stop -- that large an army in an instant.

Thermopylae bought the Greeks fully two weeks. They put that to good use.

Yes, the Persians took Athens and burnt it to the ground. But Athens-the-people, and Athens-the-army, had escaped to the hills. And the Athenian navy under Themistocles had one last trick up their sleeve: they drew the Persian navy into ambush at Salamis, where they handed them a splendid mauling.

Without that navy, you see, Xerxes could no longer keep his army well-supplied. He had to withdraw a great portion of his force back to the Hellespont, where he could keep them fed. That ended the campaign for the year.

A year later, at Plataea, the Persians met a fully-prepared Greek army, thirty thousand strong -- with TEN THOUSAND Spartans!

Without the stand at Thermopylae, it would all have been for naught. The Persians would have steam-rolled Greece, and the Greek experiment in democracy would have been extinguished. As imperfect as it was, as flawed as it was, it was the greatest hope for liberty that humankind had at the time, and the brave stand of three hundred Spartans saved it.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "The tree of Liberty must be refreshed with the blood of patriots." We Americans are free today because every generation has faithfully taken its turn to water that tree. Go, see 300 today, and raise a glass in memory of the brave lads who took their turn to water that tree when it was but a sapling.

Because no one will care even ten years from now what some reviewer said. But as long as there exist warriors, soldiers, and free men, the legend of Leonidas the King and his Three Hundred will blaze with a golden light, freshly remembered with each re-telling. It is well to remember that there are things worth fighting for, and it is well to remember the men who made the ultimate sacrifice for them.