The Tyranny Index Sudden Clemency Not Sign Of Liberalization

Posted: January 14, 1987

WASHINGTON — In 1982, Albania held an election which Communist Party chief Enver Hoxha won by 1,627,959 votes to 1. A decisive victory. It suggested to me at the time a key to what political philosophers had long been seeking: a reliable tyranny index.

The Tirana Index (named after Albania's capital) holds that repressiveness correlates with electoral success. The higher the score rolled up by the ruling party in elections, the more tyrannous the regime. At one end of the spectrum are places like Albania, the Soviet Union and Syria, where 99 percent of the vote is the norm.

At the other end are freewheeling semi-anarchies, like Italy, where it is unsafe to drive and where the ruling party never gets half the vote.

In between lie orderly democracies like the United States (winning margins of 60 percent, tops) and moderate autocracies like Mexico, which will broach 70 but not much more for fear of embarrassment to all concerned.

A few weeks ago, the Tirana Index met yet another challenge. In the midst of a severe food and energy shortage, Romania held a referendum. The result: 17,699,772 Romanians voted yes, no one voted no. A shutout. A perennial contender for the honor of most repressive regime on earth (in Romania, typewriters must be registered with the police) had conducted what may be the most perfect election yet.

The Tirana Index is a proven instrument. But events over the Christmas holidays have convinced me that, notwithstanding its accuracy and elegance, there is another measure of tyranny, more subtle and more qualitative, that needs to be explored. Call it the Pardon Index: the more lawless, capricious, and imperious a regime, the greater its propensity to make use of the pardon power.

There have been a lot of pardons issued over the holidays. In the most famous of these, Mikhail Gorbachev phoned Andrei Sakharov and released him

from exile in Gorki, to which Sakharov had been banished as arbitrarily as he has now been recalled. His wife, Yelena Bonner, was granted a formal pardon for "anti-Soviet activities."

In Nicaragua, Eugene Hasenfus, convicted by a People's Tribunal and sentenced to 30 years, served ten weeks before being placed in Sen. Christopher Dodd's Christmas stocking for return to Wisconsin. Caught in the same holiday spirit, terrorists calling themselves the Revolutionary Justice Organization chose one of five Frenchmen held captive in Lebanon and let him go.

A pardon is a wonderful thing, particularly if you're the one being pardoned, and particularly if, like the Sakharovs and the Frenchman, you are innocent. (As for Hasenfus, he is either a criminal or a POW depending on whether or not you believe that he qualifies as a combatant in a civil war.)

But as politics or justice, the pardon is a fraud. "In all supremacy of power," said a 17th-century philosopher, "there is inherent a prerogative to pardon."

The reverse is equally true: In all prerogative to pardon, there is inherent the supremacy of power. The logic of the pardon is that justice is a gift to be dispensed by power. It makes of freedom a legal indulgence, a grant, an act of serendipity. What is meant as a show of humanity is often a mere show of cynicism: a display of arbitrary power (why clemency for A and not B?) for political ends.

Consider the manner, little noted, in which the Soviets announced Sakharov's release. It betrayed the gesture's true purpose, which was to impress not Russians (in a closed society, domestic pacification is not an issue), but Westerners.

The Sakharov announcement came first from the Soviet foreign ministry. It is as if Secretary of State Shultz were to announce clemency for Jean Harris. (The inexactitude of analogy - Harris is not a political prisoner - cannot be helped, the United States having no political prisoners.) The free exercise of speech subsequently permitted to Dr. Sakharov has been similarly one-sided. He has been all over American TV; he has yet to play Moscow.

In democracies, the pardon should be used as sparingly as possible. It should be a very limited instrument, not for dispensing clemency but for righting obvious miscarriages of justice that are otherwise unremediable (e.g., the 1913 Leo Frank case in Georgia). Only on these rarest of occasions should it supplant the workings of ordinary justice. Free countries have another mechanism for dealing with that. It is called law.

The pardon is for tyrants. They like to declare pardons on holidays, such as the birthday of the dictator, or Christ, or the Revolution (interchangeable concepts in many of these countries).

The promiscuous dispensation of clemency is not a sign of political liberality. It is instead one of those valuable, identifying marks of tyranny. Like winning an election with a perfect score.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|