Does the TSA Go too Far?

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Has the federal government not yet overstepped its boundaries when it uses radiation to strip-search its citizens each time they fly and frisks them as they go to football games?

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Language Tricks and the Term “Social Justice”

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One particularly effective strategy of using language for these purposes is to equate a policy with what is moral. Protesters in North Carolina, who opposed the policies of former Governor Pat McCrory referred to their demonstrations in the state capital as “Moral Mondays.” Proponents of abortion have labeled their position “Reproductive Rights.”

Claiming that one’s position is the moral course of action can only be earned through persuasively addressing the best arguments of the other side.

For many, “justice,” “social” or otherwise, consists of a respect for ownership.

Although the term “social justice” has been used with increasing frequency in the past decade, the term has had a curious evolution from its original use in Catholic theology. Its adoption by left-leaning politicians is not particularly new, and President Franklin Roosevelt used the term as long ago as 1932. The term made a second appearance in President Harry Truman’s 1949 inaugural address before being popularized further by John Rawls in his influential 1971 book A Theory of Justice.

Today, it is used with such frequency that it has become an almost hallmark of Democratic Party campaigning, and college students sometimes use the term to explain their guiding political philosophy. “Social justice,” in its contemporary usage, means something to the effect of redistributing wealth so as to create a society where everyone has a comparable degree of property and opportunity. One group defines the modern term as a “doctrine of egalitarianism.” However, historically, “social justice,” has not carried connotations of government policies advocating the expansive reshuffling of wealth. Read more

The Dangers of Yale Renaming Its History

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People of Irish heritage might insist that the Seychelles rename its capital, Victoria, because its namesake queen reigned over the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland during the Irish famine, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1million people and was caused, in large part, by British grain import practices.

History, by definition, is not just a reflection of what we happen to believe at the present. Rather, it tells the story of how our views and values have evolved, often for the better.

This past weekend, the Yale Corporation renamed one of its residential colleges for computer scientist Grace Hopper, dropping the name of John C. Calhoun, whose political philosophy included a defense of slavery. The decision came after months of campus protest over honoring Calhoun whose beliefs many find abhorrent. Tampering with the historic record, however has its dangerous side.

Similar demands for renaming buildings honoring historical figures have been made at other institutions including Princeton University, where students took issue with the use of President Woodrow Wilson’s name because he did not share modern sentiments on race and supported certain segregationist practices.

History is no doubt filled with unpleasant happenings. To demand, however, that events we find distasteful be removed from our consciousness is not only counterproductive but invites the normalization of whitewashing and selectively engaging with history. Read more

Does Mandatory Sentencing Cause More Harm Than Good?

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In a notable instance of bipartisanship, Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) co-sponsored a bill last session seeking to address concerns about the harmful effects of mandatory minimum sentencing. If it had passed, the Justice Safety Valve Act would have allowed judges to deviate from mandatory minimums in instances where they deemed a lesser sentence to be warranted.

This policy was intended to alleviate reasonable concerns that the discretion afforded to judges resulted in varied sentences for defendants who had committed similar crimes. Although uniformity in punishment and equal treatment under law ought to be objectives of a functioning legal system, mandatory minimums routinely result in unnecessarily lengthy prison sentences, while also failing conclusively to deter crime.

Mandatory minimums, which are imposed by legislatures, prescribe specific sentences for certain offenses, particularly those involving drugs. This policy was intended to alleviate reasonable concerns that the discretion afforded to judges resulted in varied sentences for defendants who had committed similar crimes. Although uniformity in punishment and equal treatment under law ought to be objectives of a functioning legal system, mandatory minimums routinely result in unnecessarily lengthy prison sentences, while also failing conclusively to deter crime.

A government ought not deprive a citizen of his liberty except for when he poses a concrete risk to the security of others. Many of those sentenced under mandatory minimums are non-violent offenders, who would have received lighter sentences or even probation but were required to be incarcerated. Those familiar with this issue are likely aware of the now infamous case involving Weldon Angelos, a man with no prior convictions sentenced to fifty-five years in prison for selling marijuana while carrying a firearm. The U.S. District Court judge who was bound by the mandatory minimum when sentencing Angelos called the punishment “unjust, cruel, and even irrational.”

In 2010, 14.5 % of all federal sentences were the result of mandatory minimums. This statistic demands a reexamination of the practice of incarcerating innumerable Americans without consideration for the unique aspects of their particular transgression. Although mandatory minimums sought to eliminate the discretion that resulted in sentencing imbalances, such discretion still exists; however, it is has been transferred from judges to prosecutors. Prosecutors, who may have political incentive to accumulate convictions, have the nearly unrestricted liberty to determine whether or not to charge a defendant and also to choose the severity of the charges to levy.

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Mandatory sentencing has not been demonstrated to cause reductions in crime. In their paper “Imprisonment and crime,” Steven Durhlauf and Daniel Nagin cite a number of studies that call into question the link between severity of punishment and deterrence. For example, a report on mandatory sentencing in California found “little evidence of crime-prevention effects.” Among the assumptions behind the enactment of these laws was the belief that before committing a crime, an individual would act rationally and consider the severe sentence that may accompany the particular offense. However, it has been consistently argued that the certainty of punishment is a more effective deterrent than its severity. Also, critics contend that sentencing low-level drug distributors to long prison terms does not reduce crime because their role will be quickly filled by others.

Mandatory minimums imposed for drug offenses are also condemned for their tendency to create a “cliff” where a slight increase in the quantity possessed of a substance may result in a much lengthier sentence. For example, in North Carolina, trafficking 10 pounds of marijuana results in a 25 month mandatory sentence; however, committing the same offense with 9.9 pounds carries a relatively short sentence.

Acknowledging the high recidivism rate in the United States along with the relative frequency of violence in prisons, there is cause to avoid incarcerating offenders who are not a risk to public safety. Between 2011 and 2012, 4.0% of prison inmates were the victims of unwanted sexual contact. Trials as taxing as physical and sexual assault combined with often not receiving educational or vocational training while incarcerated makes rejoining communities and families quite difficult. More than three quarters of released inmates are arrested again within five years.

A 2014 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center indicates that 63% of Americans now support replacing mandatory prison sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders with alternatives such as treatment for addiction. In 2001, only 47% of Americans had supported such a shift. Although to alter policy on the basis of shifting public opinion alone is hardly advisable, given concerns about granting unnecessary heed to the view of a current majority, it is likely that this change in opinion demonstrates that the public has become aware of the compelling reasons to discontinue the practice.

Although the Executive Branch has taken action to mitigate the pernicious consequences of mandatory sentencing, it is preferable that Congress and state legislatures put forward bills to reinstate judicial discretion. It is time to end the practice of confining Americans to prison for potentially disproportionately long sentences without considering the unique aspects of their cases.

This article appeared originally in the January 20, 2015 edition of The News & Observer.

Will History See Another “New Nixon”?

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Richard Nixon spoke in Greensboro during his first presidential campaign in 1960, which ended in a narrow defeat to John F. Kennedy, “I always remember that whatever I have done in the past, or may do in the future, Duke University is responsible one way or the other.” Nixon earned a full scholarship to Duke’s Law School, and he would later become president of the Duke Student Bar Association and graduate third in his class. Duke first distanced itself from its most famous alumnus by rescinding an invitation to have Nixon speak at the 1954 Commencement after the faculty decided against awarding him an honorary degree. In the aftermath of Watergate, Terry Sanford, the Democratic former Governor of North Carolina and President of Duke, negotiated for Nixon’s Presidential Library to be built on campus. However, Duke’s Academic Council voted 35-34 to block its construction and thus disown its most notable, and most controversial alumnus.

However, we must remember the nobler side of Nixon: his choice to decline a full scholarship to Harvard to remain in California and provide for his younger brothers, his tenacious pursuit of the woman who repeatedly repudiated his advances before acquiescing and agreeing to marry him, and his vision for an enduring global peace.

If Richard Nixon were still living, he would be 100 years old, and his presidency continues to be marred by controversy. Although he was, at times, unable to uphold the morals that he knew to be indispensable, he was hardly the scoundrel that he is too often presented to be. Confronted by the burden of being the world’s most powerful man, he found himself so overwhelmed by how vulnerable his administration was to critique that he compromised his integrity. However, we must remember the nobler side of Nixon: his choice to decline a full scholarship to Harvard to remain in California and provide for his younger brothers, his tenacious pursuit of the woman who repeatedly repudiated his advances before acquiescing and agreeing to marry him, and his vision for an enduring global peace.

His father, Francis Nixon, owned “the poorest lemon ranch in California.” Two of his four brother died of tuberculosis, while they were still young. Despite Nixon’s responsibilities which required him to drive a truck loaded with produce each morning to market, his excellent academic performance earned him a scholarship to Harvard. He declined in order to work at his father’s grocery store and support his younger siblings. Bob Dole spoke of Nixon’s determination during his eulogy for the former president, while standing in front of the house Francis Nixon built, “He was a grocer’s son who got ahead by working harder and longer than everyone else. How American. He was a student who met expenses by doing research at the law library for 35 cents an hour.”

Richard Nixon and Thelma “Pat” Ryan were cast in the same production of The Dark Tower at a community theater in Whittier.Nixon had never seen her before, and he decided that she was quite an attractive, promising young woman. He asked her to dinner, and she refused. He asked her again, and she refused. As she consistently declined his numerous invitations, Nixon declared that she could say no all she liked but that one day he would marry her. After two years of persistent courtship, she relented and became Mrs. Nixon.

As president, Nixon’s most memorable accomplishments were in foreign policy and included: the opening of diplomatic relations with China, easing tensions between the United States and Soviet Union with agreements such as The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and ending the Vietnam War. Nixon‘s administration is also known for its environmental reforms, which included the passage of the Endangered Species Act and the creation of Earth Day. His commitment to preserving the environment and protecting it for future generations demonstrates an altruism of sorts in which he emphasized the necessity of preserving the earth, even when it comes at a financial cost.

To the critics who contend that Nixon never took responsibility for his indiscretions during Watergate, a sorrowful Nixon apologized during an interview with David Frost : “I let down the country, I let down our system of government and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but will think it is all too corrupt. Most of all I let down an opportunity I would have had for two and a half more years to proceed on great projects and programs for building a lasting peace.” In the years following his presidency, he resurrected his image; he was the American representative at the funeral of the Shah of Iran, and Bill Clinton regularly invited him to the White House for counsel.The epitaph on his tombstone is a quotation from his first inaugural address, “The Greatest Honor History Can Bestow Is The Title of Peacemaker.”

This article appeared originally in the August 8, 2013 edition of The News & Observer. 

Where Are the American Flags in U.S Universities?

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Over the course of recent visits to several American colleges, I have been surprised to encounter an abundance of flags and banners brandishing foreign nations and various advocacy groups, while there is a conspicuous lack of flags belonging to the United States. Upon reading the mission statements of a number of these and other universities, I have taken note of a common sentiment: it is desired that students contribute positively to their communities and to the world, along with to this nation. Take for example the mission statement of Clemson University in South Carolina: “[The school’s] programs contribute to the state of knowledge and to the economic future of the state, nation and world.” Furthermore, public universities and private universities alike are frequent beneficiaries of grants from the United States government — often for research and medical facilities. 

In considering this issue, there is first a distinction to be drawn between the flags flown by the university, for example in front of an academic building or along a pathway, and those flags that students display, most frequently draped from the windows of their residences. To address first those belonging to the students: it is proper that the exhibition of these various pennants is neither sponsored nor discouraged by the university. The university and its administrators do not dictate that students ought to exhibit, for example, the flag of Brazil, a flag that I have seen more frequently displayed than the American flag at one particular school in North Carolina.  And the university, in most instances, does not dissuade students from flying flags, even ones that readily lend themselves to controversy. I would hazard that I am hardly alone in my support for the relative ideological autonomy endowed to students, the tendency for the institution not to interfere with how they express themselves through their choice of banners tacked to windowsills.

The suggestion, thus, is concerned more with the common areas of campus maintained by the administration. It is uncommon, admittedly, for the institution to hang a flag belonging to another country or representing some ideological or religious group. Most often, it is simply that the university flies no flag whatsoever. Sometimes there is even a flag pole with no flag, as if displaying a flag is not worth the bother of its maintenance.

It is not that the university ought to mandate its students display American flags, at say an interval of one per floor of a dormitory. Rather, the university should itself place American flags throughout the campus to remind its students of their unique privileging of living in the nation that leads in the world in aid offered to foreign governments, that took the lead in creating the United Nations, that rebuilt war-torn Europe, that, as a founding ideal, guaranteed its citizens freedom of speech, and whose Founding Fathers understood the proper balance between having too much democracy and too little.

Although some college-aged people may be temporarily absorbed in rhetoric that seeks to trivialize the achievements of the United States and its foundational values or, at greater extremes, to assert that the United States is a sinister colonial power, the display of the flag by the university instills in students a respect for the American tradition and model of government, the very freedom that enables these students to display whatever flag they like or speak their mind, no matter how incendiary their comments may be, with little fear of reprisal.

American universities ought to display American flags where they can be readily seen and appreciated. Even as some students prefer to display flags of every group and nation other than the United States while, in some cases, seeking also to further transient notions that malign the United States and its history, there must be a commitment, on the part of the university, to honor and respect The United States, a nation from which these universities and their students have been long influenced and a nation to whom their security and well-being are, in great part, owed.