On his way out the door, Donald Trump pardoned a bunch of his buddies. Trump didn’t pardon himself, as some suspected he would. And now one wonders whether President Biden might consider a pardon for Trump.
At his inauguration, Biden spoke of unity, love and healing. Would a Trump pardon help? This was Gerald Ford’s reasoning when he pardoned Richard Nixon. Ford explained, “the tranquility to which this nation has been restored by the events of recent weeks could be irreparably lost by the prospects of bringing to trial a former president of the United States.”
There is much to think about here. What is the role of justice and pardon in the life of the nation? And in our own lives?
The pardon power is easily abused. Trump pardoned his cronies, including his son-in-law’s father. Bill Clinton pardoned his brother, Roger Clinton. And Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted the murder sentence of the son of a political ally.
The pardon power exists because the judicial system is a blunt tool. The executive can make exceptions that correct failures and excesses — or that recognize the unique circumstances of wrongdoers.
Presidents Ford and Carter commuted the sentences or granted amnesty to tens of thousands of Vietnam era draft dodgers and deserters. After conscription was abolished and the war ended, it seemed odd to punish those who refused to fight.
Not everyone was happy about this. Those who obeyed the law and fought in Vietnam resented this move. It seemed to discredit their own service and sacrifice.
Justice requires fair and equal treatment. It also demands negative consequences for wrongdoing. If you do the crime, they say, you must do the time.
Strict retributivists argue that forgiveness is unjust since it fails to give wrongdoers what they deserve. But justice is not the only thing that matters. Forgiveness is beneficial emotionally and psychologically. It heals resentment and promotes kindness. Mercy can build reconciliation and help create a new future.
The world’s religious traditions often celebrate these values. Some even imagine God as merciful and compassionate. But how does God’s mercy relate to divine justice? If you want to generate an argument, ask a friend whether they think God would forgive Hitler.
Forgiveness is an exception to the rule of punishment. For this reason it appears arbitrary and capricious. It unfolds that way in our own emotional lives. Anger and resentment fester, until one day they fade away. It is often not clear why this happens.
There is a mystery here that theologians call grace. Forgiveness is a gift. To forgive is to give up on anger and the demand for punishment. It is to give in to love, compassion, and other tender-hearted values.
But should presidents and governors have the power to bestow this kind of gift? In the old days of kings and emperors, people thought that the sovereign’s mercy was guided by God. But we know that our leaders are merely human. And we see that the pardon power can be abused for corrupt and venal purposes.
Nepotism and cronyism are obvious problems. It is wrong to use the promise of a pardon to create loyalty in the cover up of a crime. It is also wrong to sell pardons or to pardon political cronies. These corrupt uses of the pardon power make it appear that justice is not blind, but that she is only winking at the rich and well-connected.
This shows us the deep political problem of the pardon power. Its promiscuous usage undermines faith in the rule of law and the fairness of the justice system. In defense of the rule of law, it seems that we must make examples of those who break the law.
After Ford pardoned Nixon, many were outraged at justice denied. The tranquility Ford hoped for failed to materialize. Nixon appeared to have gotten away with his crimes. As a result, Ford’s political power waned.
So after you are done arguing about God and Hitler, turn the conversation to Ford and Nixon — and Biden and Trump. What is the function of justice, punishment, and pardon in the life of our nation? And what is the role of mercy and forgiveness in your own life?