The Hobgoblin of Eric Holder

Give him prison or give him death? One of the images given to Boston Magazine by Sgt. Sean Murphy of the Massachusetts State Police.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds
adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

Seeming to have taken a healthy dose of Grant’s whiskey, Attorney General Eric Holder is a shining light among his fellow Obama cabinet members. This month he continued to show backbone and a willingness to temper justice with mercy. He also must have sent a bottle to the President, who, in a moment of candor unusual for any president, said “Marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol,” sending the strongest signal yet that the end to marijuana prohibition will soon be here. Holder followed up when he told bankers in Washington and Colorado that they could deposit the cash of legal sellers of marijuana without fear of the Feds seizing the funds.

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Another hopeful sign came from Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who said the Department of Justice is actively searching to commute the sentence of selected inmates who were victimized by our nation’s cruel mandatory minimum sentences. Cole said: “It is the department’s goal to find additional candidates, who are similarly situated to the eight granted clemency last year, and recommend them to the President for clemency.” Before anyone fears that the Obama administration will open our prisons’ floodgates, setting free all those criminals on an unsuspecting public, Cole made clear only a few might qualify for mercy: “Candidates for clemency would include inmates who have clean records in prison, do not pose a threat to public safety and are facing excessive sentences.”

In one area, however, Holder continues to be tortured by a hobgoblin — an ugly little elf that causes dread and fear. This elf, otherwise known as “National Security,” evokes the fear of negative public opinion and Congressional outrage. Last week, the Department of Justice announced it would seek the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the accused Boston marathon bomber. In a statement, Holder said:

After consideration of the relevant facts, the applicable regulations and the submissions made by defendant’s counsel, I have determined that the United States will seek the death penalty in this matter. The nature of the conduct at issue and the resultant harm compel this decision.

Many rational citizens support this decision, and their emotions are understandable. Liz Norden, the mother of two men who lost legs in the bombing, said, “You know, it just makes me relieved that the Attorney General believes this a terrorist attack…and we support the decision.” The Justice Department spoke with many victims’ families before reaching the decision. Indeed, the AG’s decision was not unexpected and is consistent with the U.S. putting to death Timothy McVeigh for his role in the Oklahoma City bombing.

Emerson argues that when a man adheres blindly to thoughts or opinions he has vocalized in the past, purely for the sake of seeming true to his principles, he violates his nature. The same should apply to governments and those in positions of authority. He believed a man must be willing, every day, to open his consciousness to his intuition, whether or not what it tells him is in conflict with prior conclusions. Emerson decried the effects that society has upon the individual. He says that when people are influenced by society, they will compromise their values in order to retain a foolish character to the world — thus his famous “hobgoblin” conclusion.

Give him prison or give him death? One of the images given to Boston Magazine by Sgt. Sean Murphy of the Massachusetts State Police.
Give him prison or give him death? One of the images given to Boston Magazine by Sgt. Sean Murphy of the Massachusetts State Police.

The Obama administration has used every means at its disposal to combat terrorism. They’ve ordered drone strikes on unsuspecting American citizens, spied on the phone and Internet records of every American citizen, and continue to house alleged terrorists in Guantanamo without a trial — and these are just a few of the actions we know about. The Justice Department has consistently supported and been at the forefront of the administration’s policies, blithely trampling on our constitutional rights in the process. For the most part, public opinion and Congressional leadership have supported their efforts. Seeking the death penalty for the alleged Boston Marathon bomber is right in line with this aggressive attitude and its desired public persona. But Holder should consider a different approach — for the death penalty will only fuel more terrorism, not prevent it.

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The AG should take another slug of Grant’s whiskey and consider Emerson’s suggestion to open his consciousness to a different approach, one that takes into account the moral principle that it is wrong to take a human life. We are a nation of laws that from top to bottom embodies this principle, and before our government pulls the switch or tightens a noose it should consider that every execution, no matter the crime, devalues that principle. When a government kills a human being, especially when there is no future threat of harm from that human being, we argue that murder is justified in certain circumstances — the very argument made by terrorists. The only difference is in the justification and who is doing the killing.

Holder‘s decision is not an easy call, so all we can ask is that he listens to his conscience, not just to the opinions of others or, worse, just to be consistent. In Robert Bolt‘s play A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More says: “I believe when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for their sake of their public duties… they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”

Mr. Attorney General, listen to your conscience, not to your hobgoblin.