Some say law is meaningless unless we punish lawbreakers without fail. If law enforcement doesn’t stop spies, tax cheats, illicit drug users – and immigration violators – they say it’s because we aren’t cracking down hard enough.
Treason is among the worst crimes. It’s the only crime specified in the Constitution.
How has America dealt with treason?
American spies Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen are serving life sentences. Harsh punishment indeed. But not every traitor pays such a price.
U.S. Navy officer Michael Schwartz spied for Saudi Arabia and never spent a day in prison. Peter Lee spied for China and spent a year in a halfway house. Pentagon analyst Ronald Montaperto, who gave highly classified information to the Chinese, spent three months in prison. American Mohammad Reza Alavi, spent fifteen months in prison after he was caught spying for Iran. Pretty lenient.
Some of the worst traitors pay no price at all.
John Bell Hood graduated from West Point in 1853. He took the U.S. Army officer’s oath, 1830s version, in which he swore to “bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and [to] serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies … and observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States ….”
Like his fellow Confederate generals, Hood broke his oath and led rebel armies against the U.S. Hood’s treason caused hundreds of thousands of American deaths from battle and disease.
Despite this, Hood, Robert E. Lee, and other Confederates benefited from amnesties and pardons after the Civil War. Even Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, was not punished.
The U.S. honors these men. The Army’s Ft. Hood, the world’s most populous military base and site of a 2009 mass shooting by a U.S. citizen soldier, was named for traitor Hood. Forts Bragg, Jackson, Stewart, Hill, Pickett, and others, were named for other traitors. Named for Jefferson Davis are a county in Georgia, a parish in Louisiana, highways in North Carolina and Alabama, a Houston hospital, on and on and on.
There are amnesties for lesser crimes, too.
Georgia, home of the Stone Mountain monument honoring Confederate traitors, has photos of highway toll evaders’ license plates. Georgia police know where these scofflaws live. Nevertheless, Georgia’s 2010 toll amnesty reduced the per-violation fee from $25 to $15 for those who paid up.
In 2008-09, New York State had a tax amnesty. Crooks could “save thousands in tax penalties and gain protection from criminal tax prosecution if they agree to pay back tax debt and become compliant in future years.” Cheats and thieves who paid up and agreed to behave were in the clear. Florida and Philadelphia had similar tax amnesties last year. Libraries throughout the country offer amnesties to encourage return of overdue books.
There’s another kind of amnesty: the “statute of limitations.” In New York, if you commit arson, armed robbery, burglary, or other serious crimes, and you are not indicted within five years, you are home free. Forever.
Foreigners aren’t so lucky. For example, a foreigner who commits a firearms offense, even mere illegal possession, will be deported from the U.S. and banned for life. No matter your motive, how good you are, whether you understood the law, how many American kids you support, whether you served in the U.S. military, or how long you had your green card. Out. Forever.
Ditto for foreigners desperate to do back-breaking agricultural work in exchange for subsistence pay. According to the Department of Labor, 78% of farm workers are foreign born, and 53% of those lack authorization to work here. Yet the penalty for falsely checking the “citizen” box on an I-9 form to get a farm job to feed your hungry American kid is banishment for life. No judge can save you. Gone. Forever.
See the pattern?
Some of our law-‘n’-order types admire and forgive bloody-handed Confederates and take advantage of tax and toll amnesties without a second thought.
Yet they insist we banish a foreigner in her fifties who has lived here since she was a baby. They are satisfied if a legal resident who served in the Marines is deported forever when he applies for citizenship or returns from a vacation abroad and his teenage drug offense comes to light. They grow frantic at the thought of hardworking residents paying fines and back taxes to get right with the law.
“No amnesty!” they cry. “Illegal is illegal!” But only when it comes to foreigners. Not for native-born traitors who took up arms against our nation. We name military bases for them.
We should remember the words of our President: “And I remind people all across our country, family values do not stop at the Rio Bravo. There are people in Mexico who have got children who are worried about where they are going to get their next meal from. And they are going to come to the United States, if they think they can make money here. That’s a simple fact. And they’re willing to walk across miles of desert to do work that some Americans won’t do. And we’ve got to respect that, it seems like to me, and treat those people with respect.”
It was not Bill Clinton or Barack Obama who spoke these words. It was George W. Bush. He realized that a country that forgives treason, espionage and tax evasion should have the common sense and decency to give peaceful busboys and farmworkers a break too.