THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 398, December 17, 2006
"The Great Moratorium"
Special to The Libertarian Enterprirse
Over the course of the last weeks, the Internet has been filled with a discussion I confess I actually found a little surprising. I wasn't at all shocked to see a Muslim win Congressional office on November 7after all, not only do Americans often bend over backwards to show just how prejudiced they're not, but Keith Ellison (D-MN) ran as a Democrat, and we all know how party affiliation alone played out this year! What did take me aback a little, though, was some question about just how Mr. Ellison might take his oath of office.
Although the Constitution of the United States specifically prohibits any religious test as a requirement for office (see Article VI), many politicians do swear an oath of office with one hand on a Bible, and many oaths do contain the words "so help me God." Among those happens to be the oath of office issued to newly minted Congressional Representatives. (It should be noted that the oath of office for President of the United Stateswhich is the only one actually written in the Constitution itselfdoes not contain those words. President Theodore Roosevelt is the only president, however, who took the oath as originally written.)
In a news report published just a few days after the recent elections, ABC News made mention of the fact that many Arabs were pleased not only to see a Democrat victory, but that "Arabs also marveled at the election of the first Muslim to the U.S. CongressMinnesota Democrat Keith Ellison, who will be sworn into the House of Representatives with his hand on a Koran." Never mind the very clear alarms we all ought to be hearing at a Middle Eastern celebration of a Democrat win. Instead, a significant number of Americans chose to focus on the apparently appalling notion that Mr. Ellison might swear his oath of office on a Holy Book other than the one they most respect.
As it turns out, all of the worries were effectively for nothing. So many Representatives are sworn in at one time that there's one mass oath-taking ceremony conducted by the newly sworn Speaker of the House (this year, that will be Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat from California who doubtless is also the cause of much dancing in the streets in places like Iraq, Iran, and North Korea). Nobody holds a Koran at that ceremony, or a Bible, or anything else.
Later on, Representatives do get a brief photo op as individuals when they usually pose as if they're taking an oath. At that time, they may or may not choose to have their hand on something. But that's just a photo op, and not the actual and "sacred" oath-taking itself. (All of this as well as some salient comments from experts on the matter is synopsized beautifully, by the way, in a Cybercast News Service article.)
Leave aside for the moment the fact that religious requirements or tests aren't supposed to play any part in the qualifications for public service in this country, and consider that those so worried someone might use something other than a Bible when taking is oath are actually violating the Bible themselves when they swear on it. In the Book of Matthew, it is written that Jesus tells his followers this about oath-taking:
"But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his foot stool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply yes or no; anything more than that comes from evil." Matthew 5:34-37
But I digress. I'm not really writing about religion here, though there are some who insist on making this entire debate exactly that. What I'm really addressing is the notion of promises made and not kept no matter what the oath taker uses as the object or notion by which he swears. For example:
According to the web site for the New York City Police Department, the department's mission is posted as:
"The Mission of the New York City Police Department is to enhance the quality of life in our City by working in partnership with the community and in accordance with constitutional rights to enforce the laws, preserve the peace, reduce fear, and provide for a safe environment."
Whenever an entityparticularly one which serves the publichas a mission, by definition all of its employees are a part and parcel of the effort toward achieving and maintaining that mission. Where police are concerned, this is doubly so since they swear to "protect and serve." Yet this same department, which makes an issue of working "in accordance with constitutional rights" and claims it will "value human life, respect the dignity of each individual and render our services with courtesy and civility" apparently has some problems doing so.
The current example of how at least some of the New York Police Department behave involves the all but inexplicable overkill of five officers who fired some 50 shots at three young men early one morning, killing one of them on his wedding day. The police have variously claimed the young men were driving toward them, that they were armed (no weapons were found), or that a fourth man who was armed ran away (the survivors have said only the three of them were in the vehicle). Of the two survivors, one was hospitalized with 17count them, 17bullet wounds.
Even without knowing the rest of the facts of the case, "overkill" seems to remain the best word to describe the incident. So while the New York police claim they're working to keep everybody safer, they apparently shoot before there's a need thus becoming the danger themselves; and while New York police say they're working constitutionally, their fears somebody else has a gun is ironic at best when it's considered that the gun laws in that city are draconian. The police web site, in fact, advertises a reward for anybody who calls and tells on anybody else who has one of those nasty guns. At this point, I have to wonder if we shouldn't all make a call or two and report the five cops involved in the fatal shooting!
Who else do we know that takes an oath effectively to protect and to serve? Our doctors. For thousands of years, doctors swore to the god Apollo that they would follow a certain code of ethics which can be effectively boiled down to "do no harm." In 1964, a more modern version of the Hippocratic Oath was written in which the prohibition of sexual relations with patients, abortions, and euthanasia was removed. It is the latter version or one similar to it that most medical students take today. But even that has its critics.
There are those who suggest its pagan origins are a contradiction to Christian values (how precisely is it a "contradiction" when the original prohibited illicit sex, abortion, and euthanasiawhich many Christian sects opposeI wonder?). According to a web page on the subject maintained by public television's reputable NOVA program, another problem lies in the fact that "most modern oaths, in fact, are penalty-free, with no threat to potential transgressors of loss of practice or even of face" and that, "with all this in mind, some doctors see oath-taking as little more than a pro-forma ritual with little value beyond that of upholding tradition." In other words, the oath is immaterial since pretty much nothing happens to those who don't.
And that's the point. It's not a matter of religion at all. It's not important whether Congressmen swear on a Bible or a Koran that they'll uphold the Constitution, or that doctors promise to do their best for the health of their patients in the name of the god Apollo or no god at all. It doesn't matter what promises cops make and on what they swear. What matters is that these peoplethose who make our laws, protect our families from criminals, and who maintain our healthkeep those vows. And they're not.
More and more doctors are basing almost every decision they make on economics (they admittedly often have a pretty good excuse for that, but it's still a grave compromise with what used to be touted as their solemn intent), and are more and more inclined to give insurance companies and the government alike whatever they ask for (that's probably why promises to maintain patient privacy are among those tenets from the original Hippocratic Oath that have disappeared). Those doctors who are still honorable all too often have their hands tied by government regulations that, if they fail to follow them to the letter, could result in damaging censure or even the loss of their licenses all together.
More and more cops, instead of acting as guardians, are acting as judges and juries. Worse, in many places, they've become bad guys themselves by abusing their power. And that power is becoming more and more considerable as politicians eliminate one Constitutional protection after another in the name of the War on Drugs, the War on Guns, or the War on Terror. Since the authoritiesand the inevitable accompanying abusesgranted by such as the PATRIOT Act have flourished, we may as well lump all of the battle fronts into precisely what they've effectively united to become: the War on Freedom.
You can talk about oath-breaking doctors, cops, jurors (who take an oath to serve, but who are often overtly prohibited from considering their fullest authoritylook up jury nullification sometime, and see what power you really have!by judges who are supposed to be upholding justice based on oaths of their own); or members of the military who swear to put America first but who are then sometimes ordered to serve the United Nations instead (the one soldier I know of who refused to break his oath was summarily court-martialed). And when you do, you'll find something besides their oath-breaking in common at the root of it all: politics and politicians.
Politicians make laws sometimes purely for the sake of making laws, but far more often that that, they do it for power. It doesn't matter whether they claim they're doing what they're doing because they know best, or admitting that they're compromising, but only to keep us safe. The bottom line is that they do it for power for themselves, and power for those that can aid them in their quest for still more. Regulations and statutes ensure that doctors and jurors are scared and that they do what they're told; cops and judges have gained so much authority that's it's often too difficult and even too dangerous for "civilians" to question; even the most patriotic objections by the most patriotic Americans are quashed and, in some cases, punished (there's more of that likely to come with the passage of the Military Tribunals Act); and everybody else is either bamboozled or afraid along with the rest. So here's the thing:
I don't give a damn if Congressman-elect Keith Ellison swears on a Bible, a Koran, or the sleeve of Nancy Pelosi's favorite Chanel suit. And I don't care what any of the other 400+ Representatives swear on, either. What I do care about is that they keep their oath. What I care about just as much is that they're duly punished when they don't. Where are the people who promised to see to that part of things? And why are they failingjust as are so many othersto make good on their promises?
Until we engender some sense of responsibility and restore some semblance of honor to the idea of givingand keepingour word, we will continue on the path toward oblivion we're currently treading. We can't really blame the politicians for that. You see, it's you and I that are supposed to see to the punishment of oath-breakers in public service.
George Bernard Shaw said that, "Liberty requires responsibility. That is why most men dread it." It's also why most men lose it, and why it's oftentimes so easy for other men to take it away.