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Yoo Besmirches Legacy of Jefferson

By       Message Ray McGovern     Permalink
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Initially I was shocked at the thought of the University of Virginia welcoming former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo to the "Academical Village" founded by Thomas Jefferson.

There was something very wrong about that picture. Was it not Mr. Jefferson who condemned tyrannical acts--including ones that fell far short of waterboarding--in the Declaration of Independence?

But I have come around to the view that Yoo's visit on Friday could present a rich teaching moment for those of us Virginians who believe passionately in the highest ideals that Mr. Jefferson articulated so eloquently.

Yoo's visit presents a unique opportunity for my own children -- four of them UVA alumni -- to convey the essence of The University to those of our eight grandchildren who already aspire to study there.

A teaching moment like this does require us to look through the eyes and the spectacles of Mr. Jefferson and our country's other gutsy Founders who pledged to each other "our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor" to rid tyranny from America's shores. We tend to forget that the outcome of that brazen battle for liberty was far from assured when that vow was attached as the closing line of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776.

To King George III, the words and deeds of the Founders spelled treason, and it was altogether predictable that he would order his formidable army to pursue and hang those upstart insurgents if his troops could get hold of them.

I will admit that I still get goose bumps reflecting on their commitment, their courage, and the responsibility we share as their successors.

After eight long years of war, the insurgents led by George Washington finally defeated the army of the English king and secured independence for the 13 colonies. Then, other Virginians, together with statesmen from sister colonies, succeeded in replacing one man's dictates with a Constitution that divided power among three co-equal branches of government and made the rule of law supreme.

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That is the historical background against which, 225 years later, John Yoo and other government lawyers of easy conscience decided they would "opinion away" the checks and balances etched into the Constitution by the blood of early patriots.

Virginia Roots

We Virginians take understandable pride in Mr. Jefferson and the university in Charlottesville that he considered his signal achievement. Equally deserving of praise, though, are two other Virginia patriots hailing from nearer to where I live -- George Mason of Fairfax and Patrick Henry of Hanover County.

"Of the first order of greatness," that's the way Mr. Jefferson described George Mason. And small wonder. For it is largely thanks to him that all -- including Yoo, you, and me -- enjoy a constitutional right to "freedom of speech."

Together with fellow Virginian James Madison, Mason had drafted the Constitution, which defined the relationships between the three branches of government. But Mason then shocked Madison and shattered their friendship, when Mason announced in 1787 that he would not support ratification as the document stood.

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Mason, one of the most self-effacing persons ever to serve the American people, put his reasoning succinctly: "There is no Declaration of Rights."

That being the case, it was not an option to give up. Together with Patrick Henry, Mason launched a relentless political campaign and in 1791 won approval of a Bill of Rights -- the first ten amendments to the Constitution -- which immediately became a model for other countries concerned with protecting individual freedoms.

Hence, John Yoo's First Amendment right to speak and be heard is beyond dispute. At the same time, I believe we would betray the Founders, were we to leave him unchallenged by glossing over his gymnastic twisting of logic and law -- not only in places like Iraq and Guantanamo, but closer to home, as well.

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
 

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