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And Justice for All:  The Price of Freedom and Security

by Dr. Bruce Prescott


Delivered in the House Chamber at the State Capitol in Oklahoma

For the Oklahoma Conference of Churches

20th Annual Day at the Legislature

February 11, 2003


    Justice, freedom and security all exist within a context.  The context in which we now live was shaped by events seventeen months ago when a small group of men boarded airplanes determined to hijack them and fly them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the White House.  They sacrificed the lives of thousands of innocent victims in order to signal their dissatisfaction with the way the world is ordered. 


    Dissatisfaction with the way the world is ordered is nothing new.  No one is completely satisfied with the way the world is ordered.  We are all looking for justice.  The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur says the telos or goal of every human life is “aiming at the “good life” with and for others, in just institutions.”[1]  People divide over the meaning of “the good life,” we differ about the size of the circle of “others” with whom and for whom we wish to share “the good life,” and we disagree, sometimes violently, about how “institutions” lay claim to being “just,”[2] but in one way or another we are all looking for justice.  The problem is that we all have a tendency to believe that justice serves our own personal purposes and some strive to enlist the power of the state to further their own private interests.[3]  These tendencies have roots deeper than all the historical conflicts between competing nations and clashing civilizations.[4]  It’s a story as old as Cain and Abel.


    At times, Americans have realistically acknowledged the dangers of self-interest and we designed our constitution with checks and balances and safeguards like the first amendment to help us overcome the tendency.  But we have altered our rituals in ways that deprive our ideals of meaning.  For instance, we teach our children to recite that we are “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” but the word “justice” is as meaningless as the word “God” in our pledge of allegiance.[5](Be sure to click on this footnote number.)  When the most religiously diverse country in the history of the world pretends to be unified under the same God, it also reveals the pretense underlying our commitment to justice in the sense of “fairness” for everyone.[6]


    At its root, justice in the sense of “fairness” for everyone is nothing more and nothing less than practicing the Golden Rule.[7]  Jesus of Nazareth gave the rule a positive formulation when he said “Do to others as you would have them do to you,”[8] but the Golden Rule is not unique to Christianity.  Judaism teaches, “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man.”[9]  Islam teaches, “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.”[10]  Even Buddhists, some whom deny the existence of any God, teach, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”[11]  Some formulation of the Golden Rule or some principle of respect for other persons seems common to most societies.  We all give lip service to the Golden Rule or the principle of respect, but few of us want to live by it.


    Almost all of us prefer justice that is more than a little unfair and unequal – a system of justice that tilts the scales in our own favor.  For many of us it is obvious that as long as society is ordered in such a way that we can find work with wages adequate to provide for our families, we feel free to view the desperation of the minimum-wage, working poor as a just reward for their laziness.  As long as we enjoy the privileges of a good education and the freedom to advance socially, we find it hard to identify with those whose nationality or race or social status has deprived them of equal opportunities.  As long as we are strong and healthy and have access to health care, we don’t feel threatened by the lack of a safety net for those who are disabled, in poor health or denied the care and affordable medications they need to sustain life.[12]  In brief, as long as the world is ordered in our own favor, life seems free and secure to us.


    Shift the scales, even in the slightest degree, to the benefit of others and a sense of injustice seems to immediately spring up within us.  Just look at the speed with which Americans became sensitive to the slight injustice of “affirmative action.”  After Anglo-Americans had rigged the scales to our benefit for more than four centuries, we judiciously allowed the scales to favor a few minorities.   Now, in less than a single generation, the majority has found new reasons to justify tilting them back in our favor.[13]


     Justice is always hanging in the balance.  It’s scales are always teetering up and down, trying to find the right balance between competing goods and interests within society.  Justice that is truly “justice for all” is not subject to any utilitarian calculus that would sacrifice any individual for the welfare of the group.[14]  Justice that is “fairness for all” must be constructed by a deliberate procedure where everyone has the right to a fair hearing and has hope for a wise and prudent decision.[15] 


    Many times, however, our procedures do not yield wise and prudent judgments.  All too frequently we see that the wealthy and powerful have loopholes exempting them from justice while the poor and powerless receive the harshest sanctions.  Actually, it’s worse than that -- there are times when the innocent have been convicted and possibly executed.  Even one death row inmate exonerated by DNA evidence is too many, and many have been exonerated.[16]  How can we be sure that others have not been wrongly convicted?  Dare we risk executing a single innocent person?  If we were serious about applying the Golden Rule, the least we would do is enact a moratorium on executions until we have thoroughly re-examined this issue.[17]


     The urgency for striving to secure “justice for all” increases daily.  Whenever people perceive that the scales of justice have been rigged completely against them, a sense of moral indignation begins to grow.  Indignation at injustice, whether real or perceived, prompts much of the action for social change.  When change is slow or when all hope for just redress against wrongs suffered has been blocked, indignation can become outrage and there is danger that the fanatical among us will resort to violence. 


    Terrorism has become the weapon of choice for the fanatical – both within and without our country.  The truth is, the violence we have suffered from domestic terrorists has been both more sustained and more unsettling, than that from international terrorists.  An American masterminded the sniper attacks that killed ten people and terrorized our nation’s capitol.  The anthrax that killed five people and threatened the lives of members of congress was homegrown.  And, no one needs to remind the people in this room that it was Americans who detonated the bomb that killed 167 people and destroyed the Murrah Federal Building. 


    We are not going to solve the problem of terrorism until we stop looking for scapegoats on which to displace our own moral outrage.  The solution to terrorism is neither war nor better technology.  War escalates violence and inevitably injures the innocent.  Technology aggravates the problem.  Today the terrors of the biblical accounts of Great Tribulation and the battle of Armageddon seem tame in comparison to some sober assessments of the consequences of nuclear, biological or bio-chemical weapons falling into the wrong hands.  Even if we succeed in keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of fanatics, low-tech terrorist methods are more than sufficient to keep our lives disrupted.  Methods that our own government – and you and I as its citizens – bear great responsibility for training people to use as we implemented our foreign policy around the world.[18]


    The solution to terrorism is not war or technology, it is better justice.  The need is urgent for us to recalibrate our scales of justice.  The world desperately needs America to renew its commitment to human rights, to refrain from using force to achieve our interests, and to truly commit ourselves to the ideal of “justice for all.” 


    But, instead of recalibrating the scales of justice our leaders seems determined to secure the interests of wealth and power at the expense of everyone’s liberty.  At a time when America faces the greatest economic uncertainties since the Great Depression, we envision enormous tax cuts for the wealthiest ten percent of Americans and promise a few more nickels and dimes for the poor.[19]   At a time when the cost of medical care, long-term care, and prescription medications outpaces the rate of inflation, governmental assistance for the elderly, the poor and the disabled is being drastically reduced.  Emergency care is all that remains available for them -- and those costs are being shifted to working people in the form of higher premiums for health insurance.  Then, to compound these indignities, at a time when unemployment is the highest in nearly a decade, when millions of hard-working Americans have lost their jobs and another round of layoffs is announced every day, when thousands of Americans have had their salaries and benefits reduced, and when a deflationary spiral threatens the revenues of government at every level of society, -- now, the burden of caring for the poor and needy is being dumped at the door-step of “faith-based” institutions. 


    I sincerely believe that Americans will come to rue the day that we ever began the process of shifting the material and physical welfare of our people to religion.  Religion is well-equipped to address spiritual needs, but we have never had and never will have enough resources to meet the nation’s material and physical necessities.  


    I come from a faith tradition that emphasizes tithing – giving ten percent of your income to the Lord’s work -- but less than twenty percent of us actually tithe and the truly affluent are less likely than others to do so.  The contribution records of every church, synagogue, mosque and temple in America have long confirmed that Jesus was right-on-the-mark when he said that it is easier for the rich to go through the eyes of needles than for them to enter a kingdom that demands that they give to the poor.[20]  Now our tax rolls are confirming it as well.


    It doesn’t take much to see that the well the government has dug to fund “faith-based initiatives” is pretty shallow.  The only question is whether the well runs dry before, or after, our houses of worship have lost the integrity they need to challenge the wealthy and powerful to share from their deep wells that the government is taxing all of us to fortify.  Many of those private wells were dug at public expense[21] and some of them were dug with much harm to the public’s health and well-being.[22]   Where today are prophets like Amos in Israel, or Martin Luther King or Caesar Chavez?   Today the very houses of faith that campaigned for civil rights in the 1960’s are lining up to enlist in programs that are designed to undermine the constitutional safeguards that protect the rights of minorities.  Once their integrity has been compromised, who will be left with any credibility to speak for God?[23]


    The days when religious organizations were the only place the poor and sick and elderly and disabled could find assistance were not “good old days.”  A nation that turns a blind eye to the indigent and the unfortunate is not “good,” it is calloused and unjust.  The scriptures of many faiths tell us that such hard-heartedness rouses the wrath of the Divine more than anything else. 


    But, few Americans fear divine retribution anymore.  That fear has been replaced by fear of terrorists.  Terrorists are people who have given up hope of finding justice in this world.  Their aim is either to change the world or destroy it.  In their eyes, they’ve got nothing to lose.


    The fact that some people have nothing to lose, while the rest of us have a lot to lose, is probably what frightens us most.  Nihilistic despair in a world with weapons of mass destruction threatens everyone with annihilation.  But, rather than doing something to restore the spirit and dignity of those who have no hope, we keep ignoring their grievances, compounding the injustices that lead them to despair, and developing ever more sophisticated technology to save ourselves from their murderous wrath. 


    We seem to have a lot more faith in the God of technology than in the God of justice.  That’s where our treasure is.  We spend a lot more on technology than on people.  At a time when our systems for health, education and criminal justice are in crisis, we’re building missile defense systems to protect us from nuclear weapons, developing vaccines to save us from germ warfare, and designing computers and databases to spy on each other. 


    Don’t get me wrong.  I am not opposed to technology and I am not saying that technology cannot help us.  Some of the things our government is doing are prudent, necessary and just plain common sense.  We do need to give more attention to homeland security.  The emergency preparedness it entails, the training involved, and the coordination of disaster response is invaluable.  Stockpiling vaccines, sharing some kinds of information, and coordinating law enforcement efforts are long overdue.  But these measures will not solve the problem of terrorism and they will lull us into a false sense of security. 


    Technology cannot save us from ourselves.  The computers we build to preserve our freedom threaten to enslave us.  The information we store in databases to protect us threatens us with real harm.  Who does not know that human, all too human, beings will be making the decisions about who poses a threat to society, and who has access to information, and how information will be interpreted and used?  How could we so soon forget that blind faith in human institutions is always misplaced and the people leading them often prove untrustworthy?[24]  What kind of politicians expect to hold the trust of a freedom-loving people when they continually arrogate powers that are devoid of constitutional checks and balances? 


    Freedom-loving people are ever willing to make shared-sacrifices, but only after a realistic and honest assessment of the needs and the risks.  In a free society, risks must be assessed openly, in public, and exposed to the fair light of scrutiny by all concerned parties.  


    Openness is especially important at the present moment -- when memories are still fresh of the trust we misplaced in corporate executives who concealed the risks of their decision-making and squandered much of the wealth of our nation.  Those same corporate executives, and others, influenced elections, shaped legislation, and used their wealth and power in ways that continue to undermine the foundations of our democracy.[25]  We desperately need to enact some campaign finance reform legislation that will give us clean elections and restore our faith in the democratic principle of one person, one vote. 


    Our material wealth can be forfeited and regained, but the spiritual wealth of our civil liberties and personal freedoms are not so easily exchanged.  We must especially beware that any liberty we suspend for fear of terrorists could easily be forfeited for generations to come.  The freedoms we enjoy in our democratic society are worth whatever dangers we will face, whatever risks we must take, and whatever sacrifices we choose to make.  America must not retreat from two and a quarter centuries of hard won civil liberties.  Never before have we settled for being the land of the safe and the home of the secure.  We’ve always had the courage to strive to be the land of the free and the home of the brave.


    Instead of the frightful overreaction we have witnessed since September 11th, our nation would do better if it would respond to terrorism the way the people of Oklahoma responded to the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building.  That bomb did not prompt us to surrender our civil rights or to infringe on the rights of others.  Unlike our federal government:


We did not suspend the constitution. 

We did not send the police out to round-up, lock-up or expel all the foreigners and immigrants in town.   

We did not hold suspects indefinitely without access to the courts or to counsel. 

We did not tape conversations between suspects and their lawyers. 

We did not suspend the laws requiring probable cause for wiretaps or search warrants. 

We did not expand the role of the military in domestic law enforcement. 

We did not torture suspects to obtain information, nor did we allow surrogates to torture suspects for information. 

We did not create a military tribunal to try and execute suspects without applying the Constitution or state and federal laws. 

We did not endorse assassination as an alternative to capture. 

We did not create a private foundation to issue ID cards to all citizens. 

We did not create a network of free-lance spies to report anything that might be considered suspicious. 

We did not create a massive computer system to keep tabs on every aspect of our citizen’s daily lives. 

And, we did not use the bombing as an excuse to suspend the first, second, and fourth amendments and then attack militias or invade white supremacist compounds to make them disarm.[26]


    What we did was to rescue survivors, clean-up the wreckage, rebuild our city and bring the criminals to justice.  The bombing of the Murrah Federal Building did not destroy the freedom-loving, risk-taking, self-sacrificing spirit of the people of Oklahoma.  Neither should the criminal acts of a few terrorists destroy the freedom-loving, risk-taking, self-sacrificing spirit of our nation.


    Since September 11, 2001 it has become commonplace to say that the world changed that day.  Some things did change.  Several thousand precious, unique and irreplaceable lives were lost and the lives of many more were irreparably harmed. 


    I must object, however, to assigning any significance to the evil that transpired that day.  In my mind, the most important lesson to be learned from that day is to be found in the images of heroism and the examples of self-sacrifice demonstrated by the men and women of the New York City fire department and police department and others like them. 


    We need to learn from the people who left places where they were safe and secure and walked courageously into harm’s way to rescue the victims of a grave injustice.  From them we learn that there are some things in life that are more important than safety and more valuable than security. 


    Only those who have learned that lesson have the capacity to truly calculate the price of freedom and security.


[1] Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, (Chicago:  University of  Chicago Press, 1992), p. 172.

[2] Alsdair MacIntyre contends that our conflicting conceptions of justice are based on competing and incompatible conceptions of rationality.  See his Whose Justice?  Which Rationality?  (Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1988) and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1990).

[3] See Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (New York:  Seabury Press, 1979), pp. 84-122.

[4] There’s an obvious allusion here to Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1996).

[5] In the Supreme Court decision Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984) Justice O’Connor stated that “government acknowledgments of religion,” such as printing ‘In God We Trust’ on coins “serve, . . . the legitimate secular purposes of solemnizing public occasions,” p.  693.  Justice Brennan agreed with O’Connor about the “secular purposes” of such acknowledgements.  He wrote, “[S]uch practices as the designation of ‘In God We Trust’ as our national motto, or the references to God contained in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag can best be understood . . . as a form of ‘ceremonial deism’ protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny chiefly because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.” (emphasis added) p. 716-717.   The reasoning the courts are using to circumvent the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment would be highly offensive to persons of sincere faith if its implications were widely known.  It involves the government leading persons of faith from the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) to commit a grave sin.  Meaningless recitation of the name of God is precisely what the second command in the ten commandments prohibits: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”  Exodus 20:7 (KJV)

[6]The classic text for justice as “fairness” is John Rawls’ Theory of Justice (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1971).  See also John Rawls, Justice as Fairness:  A Restatement, edited by Erin Kelly (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).  Ricoeur shares essentially the same view with some modifications.  Ricoeur says, “To render each his or her due – suum cuique tribuere – is in some particular situation of distribution, the most general formula of justice.”  Paul Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred (Minneapolis:  Augsburg-Fortress Press, 1995, p. 322.  For a discussion of how far America is from the ideal of justice as “fairness” for everyone see the essays in Lani Guinier, The Tyranny of the Majority:  Fundamental Fairness in Representative Democracy (New York:  Free Press, 1994).

[7] Ricoeur contends that “a moral sense of justice founded on the Golden Rule –‘do not do to others what you would not want to happen to you’ – is always presupposed by a purely procedural justification of the principle of justice.” The Just (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 37.   Ricoeur finds that the Golden Rule underlies the “considered convictions of justice” in John Rawls’ notion of “original position” in section of 4 of his Theory of Justice, p. 19.  This is the basis for Rawls’s maximin rule which posits that justice should strive to maximize the share of persons in the minimalist position within society.  Ricouer says, “Detached from the context of the Golden Rule, the maximin rule would remain a purely prudential argument characteristic of every exchange relation.  The deontological intention, and even the historical dimension, or our sense of justice are not simply intuitive; they result from a long Bildung stemming from the Jewish and Christian as well as from the Greek and Roman traditions.  Separated from this cultural history, the maximin rule would lose its ethical characterization.” (p. 56).

[8] Luke 6:31 (NIV)

[9] Hillel, Shabbath 31a.

[10] Hidith

[11] Udana-Varga

[12] For deeper insight into the plight of the poor in Oklahoma see Robert Lee Maril, Waltzing with the Ghost of Tom Joad:  Poverty, Myth, and Low Wage Labor in Oklahoma (Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2000).

[13] See Tony Mauro’s 1-21-03 article, “Bush’s Affirmative Action Briefs Walk Fine Line”  at

[14] Ricoeur says there is “a sinister implication that utilitarianism tries to conceal,” namely “the process of victimization that utilitarianism sanctions when it proposes as its ideal the maximization of the average advantage of the greatest number at the price of the sacrifice of a small number.”  Figuring the Sacred, p. 329.

[15] I follow Paul Ricoeur in believing that the “just” has to be constructed, not discovered.   Ricoeur says, “The idea of the just is constructed inasmuch as it proceeds from a reasonable choice, whereas the good is reputed to be found, discovered, inasmuch as it is apprehended intuitively. . . .  If it is goods that are to be fairly allocated, the fairness of the distribution must owe nothing to their character as good and everything to the procedure of deliberation.  When it is subordinated to the good, the just has to be discovered; when it is engendered by procedural means, it is constructed.  It is not known in advance.  It is supposed to result from deliberation in a condition of absolute fairness.”  The Just , pp. 60-61.

[16] On January 23, 2003 the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida called for a moratorium on the death penalty in that state citing 23 instances in which death row inmates had been exonerated since 1973 in that state alone.

[17] On January 14, 2003 the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas endorsed a moratorium on the death penalty.  Among the reasons cited was the fact that the U.S. is the only western democracy currently using the death penalty and the fact that African Americans comprise twelve percent of the population of Texas and account for forty-two percent of the state’s death row population.  More than two-thirds of the people on death row in Texas are non-Anglo.

[18] In media coverage after September 11, General Norman Schwarzkopf acknowledged several times that the United States had helped train Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda.  They were considered freedom fighters when they were engaged in a jihad against the Soviet Union.  See Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil (San Francisco:  HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), p. 181; and John L. Esposito, Unholy War:  Terror in the Name of Islam (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 9-11.   See also Noam Chomsky, 9-11 (New York:  Seven Stories Press, 2001), pp. 40-53.

[19] For an understanding of the plight of the working poor see, Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed:  On (Not) Getting by in America (New York:  Henry Holt and Company, 2001).

[20] Matthew 19:16-24.

[21] A recent example:  the Oklahoma City Council approved spending eighteen million dollars to build a facility for a privately owned Bass Pro Shop at Bricktown in Downtown Oklahoma City.

[22] For example:  Recently, The Daily Oklahoman  reported another massive cave-in (35 feet across and 40 feet deep) in Ottawa County, Oklahoma at the Tar Creek Superfund site.  The paper reports, “Years of lead and zinc mining in the 40 square mile site left at least 75 million tons of lead-tainted mine shaft tailings, 450 open mine shafts, polluted water and about 60 major cave-ins of at least 95 feet in diameter.” (January 29, 2003, p. 5-A)

[23] There is an obvious allusion here to the title of Jim Wallis’s book, Who Speaks for God? (New York:  Dell Publishing Co., 1996).   Wallis is an advocate for faith-based initiatives while I oppose them.  I admire Wallis’s activism for the poor, but I view his willingness to surrender the first amendment’s constitutional safeguard protecting the rights of minorities with alarm and disdain.  Wallis is sacrificing the long term needs of the poor to meet their short-term immediate needs.  The result will be more suffering and injustice for the poor, not less.

[24] Many of the laws being suspended in our rush to surveil suspected terrorists were enacted after abuses were discovered in the FBI’s handling of the surveillance of suspected communists during J. Edgar Hoover’s administration.   Most widely known are the abuses involving the FBI’s counterintelligence program (dirty tricks) directed against civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   For details see David J. Garrow, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York:  Penguin Books, 1983) and Michael Friendly and David Gallen, Martin Luther King, Jr. The FBI File (New York:  Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1993).

[25] See Mark Green, Selling Out (New York:  Regan Books, 2002) and Arianna Huffington, Pigs at the Trough (New York:  Crown Publications, 2003).  A few valuable insights can also be gleaned from David C. Korten, When Corporations Rule the World, second edition (San Francisco:  Kumarian Press, 2002).

[26] This list of suspended civil rights is a modification of the list enumerated by Jonathan Turley, professor at George Washington Law School, in his article “Liberty Ebbs by Degrees” in the Los Angeles Times, January 2, 2003.  For additional insights see Michael Salem, “Safe and Free?” Oklahoma Gazette, July 4, 2002.



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