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Revolutionary Thinking

2011 July 22

Afterthoughts On Our Day of Independence

It’s a little late for a Fourth-of-July post, but I had to give this one some thought before I decided to go for it: 
            I wouldn’t normally expect to find inspiration in the Boston Globe’s Letters to the Editor section, but I thought a July 7 letter from Manfred and Margaret Hummel (Newton, MA) was provocative. The Hummels write, “On the morning of July 4, as we stood and listened to the Declaration of Independence proclaimed from the balcony of the Old State House, we wondered if we have not come perilously close, in our own day, to some of the actions of King George III condemned by the patriots.” Among the parallels they cited:

“For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offenses.” —  Sounds like rendition.

“He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.’’ — The long incarcerations of those at Guantanamo Bay without real judicial resolution is a blot on our professed love of justice.

As pointed out by some other readers, the parallels are historically inexact, but they struck  a chord for me nonetheless — as they obviously did for the Globe’s editors. Unlike the Constitution, the Declaration is an emotional argument: an expression of grievances, and a demand for understanding. The signers were appealing to the world community, such as it was in those days, to recognize the oppression they had experienced and the reasons for the extraordinary, radical step they were about to take. Revolutions are risky, and they are fueled by emotion as much as by reason.
            I spent a peaceful Fourth-of-July picknicking with friends and watching ceremonial fireworks from a beach blanket in Provincetown. The founders faced fireworks of a different kind, and — it’s important to remember — they did not know that they were going to win. Franklin’s “Now we must all hang together or we shall all hang separately” was no doubt meant to be humorous, but it expressed a real possibility if their revolution failed.
            I find it easy to imagine myself in the situation of an 18th  century Bostonian or New Yorker, arrested by British troops while protesting the tea tax – then snatched away from my family and community to be sent for trial in a faraway country, not knowing whether I will survive or if I will ever be able to return. I can also easily imagine the rage of my family and the community left behind.
            And, in the same way, I can relate to the feelings of an Afghan detainee, snatched off the street, handcuffed, hooded, shoved onto a cargo plane for delivery…somewhere…to be interrogated and perhaps tortured for information I do not have…
            I can put myself in the situation of an imprisoned “colonial” facing the capricious justice of an occupying army, rather than a jury of my peers. Likewise I can understand the feelings of a prisoner held at Guantanamo for close to ten years — long after my captors have lost interest in any information I might have — because they can’t agree on how or where I might go to trial and hope to prove my innocence…
            Well, anyway, I think those are the kinds of points the Hummels were trying to make. They put it a lot more succinctly, though.

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