Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Have You No Sense of Decency? - Then and Now

It has been over 57 years since a pair of well-crafted sentences rang out across a Congressional hearings room in Washington DC and began a process that was of great importance to the integrity and honor of the United States:

"Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

In the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy was famous for his aggressive anti-communist stance, and speeches in which he claimed to be in possession of long lists of names of communists in the State department, the military, and elsewhere in government. He made full use of his position as chair of the Senate Committee on Government Operations and its Permanent Committee on Investigations. He destroyed the careers of many people by claiming that they had belonged to communist front organizations or associated with communists. His success at this owed a lot to the fact that he was able to play (as Harvard law dean Erwin Griswold put it) "judge, jury, prosecutor, castigator, and press agent, all in one."

On June 9 in 1954, McCarthy was pursuing a somewhat peripheral vendetta against the Army over the drafting of a member of his staff. The vendetta had already dragged through over thirty days of Congressional hearings. At one point, out of sheer malice, McCarthy decided to place into the record the quite gratuitous information that the law firm representing the Army, Hale and Dorr of Boston, employed a young lawyer, Fred Fisher, who — though he was by this time a Republican — had once (in law school and for a few months thereafter) belonged to a chapter of a leftist organization, the Lawyer's Guild.

Fisher was not even on the team that was representing the Army in the case at hand in Washington; he worked in the Hale and Dorr's Boston office and had nothing to do with the case at hand. But his career could well be over if he was publicly smeared as a communist, and that would be a blow McCarthy could strike against the senior Hale and Dorr attorney who was representing the Army, Joseph Welch. As McCarthy launched into the speech that would place it on record that Fisher had been in the Lawyer's Guild, Welch went on the offensive, arguing against him fiercely, castigating him personally ("Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness"), begging him not to go on. "Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator; you've done enough," he cried; and as McCarthy showed that he was going to go on regardless, Welch added: "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?". (The quote is often given with Have you no shame? included, but that is not what Welch actually said)

From the moment of Welch's eloquent and much-quoted utterance, Joseph McCarthy's reputation started to wane, and before long it had collapsed. He lost his popularity with the public (his altercation with Welch was seen live on TV, and the newspapers the next day recorded in print for those who didn't see it). Ultimately he was censured by his Senate colleagues. When he died three years later after a period of alcohol abuse he was a broken man. Never was there a clearer example to show that sometimes, in the face of real evil and dangerous power, one person can stand up and win a battle with a simple speech act.

Now to a similar but more recent “real evil and dangerous power,” Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté laws.  

Recently, at the Criminal Court in Bangkok on November 23rd, a Chinese descendant Thai, Mr. Amphon, aka “Arkong”, a 61 year old grandfather, who barely reads and writes Thai was convicted to 20 years of imprisonment. His crime: texting four messages to a phone belonging to Abhisit Vejjajiva’s personal secretary.

Each message earns him five years (4 messages x 5 years) as per Section 112 of the Penal Code and the 2007 Computer Related Crime Act, Section 14(2) and (3). The texts he sent were allegedly considered defamatory to the Queen of Thailand. He has been suffering from laryngeal cancer and over the past year, has been detained in prison and denied bail.

Mr. Amphon’s arrest, trial and harsh imprisonment are an outrageous disgrace. The royalists there have made Thailand a cruel and uncivilized nation, a disgrace to freedom in the world.
Mr. Amphon being led to prison while his family looks on
Perhaps those words by Mr. Welch still have some power in them after all these years. It’s worth a try:

"Have you no sense of decency, Thailand? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

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