Over the past few months I have written a bit about morality and terrorism, both of which grew out of my fear and unease. One spoke of the creativity of monsters when law and morality were non-existent and the other spoke of an anxiety that we were failing to adequately protect ourselves from the will of the terrorists. And I wrestled with an improper and immoral feeling of jealousy. While we have always been told that the good guys always win, the difficulty has been in grasping that in order for the good guys to win, many innocent people must first be harmed. It was a jealousy of which I am ashamed– that we always have to play by the rules while our enemies have the freedom to play their own game. And then, once the game is over and battle is won, I questioned our ethics in punishing those wrongdoers.
(Here are links to the three posts that dealt with these issues.
Yet my outlook on this subject is yet again challenged. See, I made the sweeping statement that we as Americans are always playing by the rules and are handcuffed by things such as civil liberties, due process, and the Constitution. But I was wrong when I intimated that America is pristine in its focus on such freedoms. In 1865, our system of justice may have actually played the role of persecutor, concocting a farce of a trial in order to swiftly convict and execute those who engaged in treasonous acts against our nation.
I speak of nothing other than the trials and convictions of those who conspired to assassinate President Lincoln, Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward. (A little bit of history you might have forgotten… The plot to assassinate Lincoln was actually part of a larger conspiracy, which included plots to assassinate Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward. The assassin of VP Johnson chickened out and the assassin of Secretary Seward was unsuccessful.)
After the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth and his death in the burning barn in Virginia, the government arrested numerous individuals associated with Booth and charged them with treason for conspiring to commit the murder of President Lincoln. One such individual was Mary Surratt, the mother of one of Booth’s best friends and the owner of the boarding house at which the conspirators concocted their plans. Mrs. Surratt was the only woman amongst the individuals charged. Her son was not even in Washington, D.C. at the time of the assassination and it was almost two years later that he returned to the U.S. and was tried for his crimes.
In May of 1865, President Lincoln had been dead less than a month and tensions were still high between the North and the South. While General Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Court House exactly a month to the day before the trial of Mrs. Surratt began, the war was not yet over and the general consensus in the Department of War was that a speedy trial and swift execution were necessary to quell any other potential Southern uprisings. Thus, the farce that was the Mary Surratt trial.
I won’t go into the details of the trial itself but suffice it to say that the fundamental tenets of due process which have been so ingrained in our minds, such as trial by a jury of our peers (Mary Surratt was tried by a military tribunal), the right to confront our accusers, and fairness of the trial itself, were all swept under the rug under the guise of a need for expediency and, more importantly, convictions.
This wasn’t so much trial on the merits, but a demonstration to the South that dissenters and rebels would be treated harshly. If you look at my previous posts you will note that this is exactly what I want! Right? Isn’t this what I have been highlighting, my jealousy that we have to play by the rules while the terrorists are not bound by the strictures of due process or fair play?
And yet, I consider this a dark period in our nation’s history. A farce of a trial intended to do nothing other than publicly humiliate the conspirators, with their executions as the final demonstration of the Union’s strength and determination to wipe out insurgents.
At the end of the day, did it succeed? The history books tell us that, with scattered incidents, the end of the Civil War, while anything but peaceful, was manageable and, who knows, maybe that is because of the public tearing down of the conspirators. But what gives me such pause in congratulating our Union in taking a stance where due process would require otherwise is this fact—it could have happened to anyone.
The problem with a society that is without due process, that is without moral law, that plays without rules, is that there is no end, there is no way to determine when it is time to restore morality. A society that is without morality will eventually eat itself- once the fiendish have been devoured, it will search for a new enemy and will feast on its own like a plague. The few who have the power, who have the ability to suspend moral law, will become drunk with power and will search for a new enemy on whom their efforts will focus.
And at some point, they will focus on me… or you… and who will be there to stand up for us then? Who will be there to remind us that moral law exists? By then, it would be too late.
An interesting side note to this—because of the treatment of Mrs. Surratt and the travesty of justice that she experienced, the law was changed, re-establishing a right to a trial by jury of one’s peers instead of by military tribunal. The unlikely benefactor of such change? Mary Surratt’s son, John, who returned to the United States in1867 and faced trial in a civil court, judged by a jury of his peers. His peers, of course, included Southern sympathizers, resulting in a hung jury and mistrial. John Surratt died in 1916 at the age of 72. His mother, by the way, was executed at the age of 42.
With this I offer a retraction. I am no longer jealous; I no longer yearn for the freedom to suspend the rules and take unfettered and unlimited action. Instead, I feel sadness. Sadness for those who are not governed by a moral compass, who believe that their way is the only way and unrestricted aggression is appropriate. At some point they will simply turn their aggressions on each other and no one will be there to protect them.