Thursday, February 25, 2010

On Economics, Values, and Meaning

As an undergraduate student at Wittenberg University in the late 1970’s, I chose to major in economics in the belief that no other subject so adequately explained the workings of everyday life. By understanding economics, or so I believed, one could understand the efficient allocation of resources, the affects of competition on prices and jobs, the distribution of wealth and income, the proper role of government and law in regulating business and the economy, the impact of advertising on the behavior of consumers, and the realities of business cycles and international trade. The true study of economics is not restricted to quantitative formulas and complex computer models – the stuff of Ph.D. programs – but concerns itself with matters difficult to quantify – political decision making, human psychology, sociology, and culture. Although the days when I debated the merits of John Maynard Keynes and John Kenneth Galbraith, Milton Friedman and Adam Smith, are long gone, the theoretical and practical distinctions of their philosophical differences continue to interest me.

I wish here to reflect not on capitalism or socialism, not on the relative merits of free enterprise versus a centrally planned economy – I wish instead to focus on the morality, values, and ethics of society’s grasp for excess wealth and the growing gap between the rich and the poor. What are the spiritual dimensions of our present economic circumstances? Is there a way to alleviate poverty and suffering, reduce gross inequalities, and improve the quality of one’s life?

Jim Wallis, the founder and executive director of Sojourners, poses such questions in Rediscovering Values: A Moral Compass for a New Economy (Howard Books, 2010). Wallis recently spoke at the Friends Select School in Philadelphia, where he argued that the global economic crisis “provides the rare opportunity to ask some fundamental questions about our most basic values.” He does not approach economics from a left or right framework – he is neither a capitalist nor a monetarist nor a Marxist, neither a liberal nor a conservative – rather, he examines the American economy from the pulpit, as a progressive, socially conscious evangelical preacher with an activist bent. He acknowledges that the 20th century created and distributed a great volume of goods and services with unprecedented efficiency. But he suggests that “with these great advances, the moral weight of our decisions becomes greater than ever before.” Is the purpose of business simply “restricted to turning a profit” or can it become something more? Does self-interest always have to be the prime motivational force of business conduct and personal behavior? Can one make sound financial and economic decisions without sacrificing moral values, fairness, and compassion?

Market forces are important, but the ability and power of markets to solve all social and economic needs has limits. Market values do not govern personal and family relationships, ethics and religion, service to the community, and matters of social justice. It is impossible to place a monetary value on a sense of personal contentment, or a life enriched by poetry, music, art, service to others, and closeness to family and friends. This occurred to me last weekend when I attended a fundraiser at the Abington Friends School, which in the Quaker tradition attempts to instill an appreciation for a simpler life, one of mind and spirit, a life committed to responsible stewardship and community service, with little emphasis on material accumulations. As several teachers and staff wowed the audience with beautiful poetry and song, including original compositions accompanied by piano and guitar, I was struck with how self-satisfied each appeared. Despite modest salaries and little public acclaim, these dedicated mentors and educators displayed a sense of personal contentment rarely seen in the corporate world.

Those who need validation from status symbols and accumulated wealth must often sacrifice a sense of purpose and meaning and personal fulfillment. “Without a clear sense of self, a strong identity, and a community of purpose,” Wallis notes, “our default mode is to identify ourselves by the things we own.” But such an identity is inherently weak and can easily dissolve and be taken away.

For some, the market is sacred and not to be questioned, more sacrosanct than religion. How else to explain a lack of outrage over $20 million severance packages handed out to CEO’s of failing companies, or billions of dollars in bonuses awarded to executives of the very institutions that contributed to our present economic woes, while the jobs of millions of Americans have been eliminated? Where is concern for the common good and a sense of neighborly compassion? Wallis suggests that “a sense of entitlement is not just an attitude we can blanketly attribute to the poor, but is a real problem of many rich people, who believe they are entitled to be treated like kings and queens of old, whether or not they are successful.”

American culture is fascinated with the super rich and the fabulously wealthy; we admire their mansions, covet their fancy cars, emulate their fashion trends and secretly desire invitations to their dinner parties. Our enchantment with wealth causes many of us to buy “things we don’t need with money that we don’t have.” We live in an age of materialism, where mass consumption results in an over emphasis on the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the houses we own – important sources of identity for many Americans. But what does it say about the ethics and morality of a society that accepts excessive consumerism and gross disparities in income and wealth, while millions of Americans are unemployed, tens of thousands are homeless, millions more are undernourished and uninsured, and half the world lives in extreme poverty?

In the Theory of the Leisure Class, the classic 1899 treatise on wealth, Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” to describe the lavish excesses of the Gilded Age. He explained that, for a certain segment of the upper class, wasteful luxury and extravagance helped to demonstrate one’s wealth and status. Since Veblen’s day, these excesses have become more prevalent, and at times more profuse. In Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich (Three Rivers Press, 2007), Robert Frank describes the modern-day practitioners of conspicuous consumption. In one chapter, he examines the super-rich yacht culture, where 100-foot yachts are considered tiny and unimpressive, as 300, 400, and even 500-foot vessels are required to keep pace in this status conscious crowd. In a world where half the global population still lives in extreme poverty, paying upwards of $100 million for a boat seems morally unconscionable.

The gap between rich and poor – indeed, between rich and everyone else – is on the rise. In 1965, the ratio of CEO salaries to average worker pay was 24-to-1. By 2004, that same ratio had risen to 431-to-1. The family of Walmart’s founder, Sam Walton, has an estimated net worth of $90 billion, which translates into one American family with a net worth roughly equivalent to the combined net worth of the bottom 40% of Americans, or 120 million people. And while the CEO of Walmart makes 900 times the salary of the company's average employee, his $17.5 million salary is nothing compared to the salaries paid to CEOs of some of the big financial institutions. In 2005, Richard Fairbanks of Capital One Financial received compensation of $249.4 million. In 2006, Angelo Mosilo, the CEO of Countrywide Financial, which led the way in subprime mortgages and dishonest lending practices, “earned” $141.98 million, ranking him seventh on the Forbes list of best-paid CEOs.

Does anybody really believe that this is a good thing? Does society benefit from such gross income disparities? Wallis argues that “when wealth becomes more and more concentrated, bad things begin to happen to us: social bonds begin to unravel, societal morale erodes, and resentment sets in when we perceive great unfairness.” As I wrote in “Is This Guy Really Worth a Billion Dollars?”, a certain amount of income inequality is a good thing, necessary to promote efficiency, to provide appropriate incentives for hard work and productivity. However, some CEO salaries and wage disparities are simply not justified, and they represent a moral and spiritual failure of our corporate and economic structures. The survival-of-the-fittest mentality, that greed is good and self-interest a necessary force for a sound economy – the notion that, if left to its own devices, the market will work itself out – are concepts that have failed a great many people, even as a select few have prospered. Is it any surprise that the two years in which income inequality was at its highest in this country – 1928 and 2007 – were years that preceded economic collapses?

Some believe that economic inequality is a reflection of one’s value to society, and that those who are rich are deservedly so, while those who are poor have simply not tried hard enough, or have done something wrong. It is easy for many people to forget that wealth is not a reflection of self-worth, or one’s value to humanity, and that much of life’s riches are distributed to those who, through a combination of many complex factors – hard work (up to a point), chance, circumstance, opportunity, and luck – determines one’s fate in life. King Solomon, a man of great wealth in his day, recognized this in the book of Ecclesiastes:

The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.
Recognizing that financial and economic success is not strictly or always the result of hard work, ingenuity, and merit – and that not all who fail to achieve great wealth are somehow less worthy human beings – is a first step in creating a more compassionate society. Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost sight of the common good; we have failed to recognize that the human race is in dire need of a helping hand, some understanding, and kindness, and that we are all in this journey together. Perhaps a search for meaning and purpose, in our work, in our relationships, in our lives, will lead the way to creating a more just and compassionate world, and an economic system that rewards hard work and success without leaving all others behind.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Eric Holder, American Justice, and the Rule of Law

Let me start with a disclaimer: I personally know and like Eric Holder. He was my boss for three-and-a-half years in the 1990’s when I was an Assistant United States Attorney in Washington, D.C. Before that, he was a well-respected D.C. Superior Court Judge in whose courtroom I appeared on several occasions. He is extremely smart, funny, personable, and sincere. Anyone who has ever worked for him knows first-hand of his public-spirited desire to do what is right and just, consistent with the rule of law and the Constitution.

Holder is under attack by conservative politicians and media pundits for three principled, but controversial decisions. In August, he appointed a special counsel to review whether CIA operatives violated any laws in approving or implementing torture during interrogations of military detainees. In November, he ordered that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (and four others) be tried in federal court, rather than before a military tribunal, for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. And in December, he decided to charge criminally, rather than treat as an enemy combatant, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged “Christmas Day bomber,” who was apprehended after his failed attempt to detonate a bomb in a plane over Detroit.

Charles Krauthammer has declared Holder’s actions “almost criminal.” Senator Lamar Alexander called for Holder to “step down” for failing to distinguish between “terrorists who are flying into Detroit, blowing up planes, and American citizens who are committing a crime.” Rudy Giuliani, who like Holder is a former U.S. Attorney (and should therefore know better), has ridiculed Holder’s decisions to allow Mohammed a fair trial and Abdulmutallab an opportunity to consult with counsel. Dick Cheney has accused Holder of giving “aid and comfort to the enemy.” The list goes on.

It requires only a basic understanding of the facts and of U.S. and international law to realize that Holder’s decisions were correct and that the criticisms against him are nothing but shameful political grandstanding of the most dangerous kind. First, Holder’s decision to treat Abdulmutallab as a criminal suspect had the consent of the FBI, the CIA, and the Pentagon, and the government's handling of the case is consistent with every previous case involving a suspected terrorist apprehended inside the United States. Krauthammer’s fantasies notwithstanding, no law authorizes the U.S. military to seize criminal suspects inside this country and hold them without charge at a military detention camp. Every person arrested in the United States, citizen or non-citizen, whether here legally or illegally, and whether charged with shoplifting, murder, terrorism, or espionage, is entitled to the protections of the U.S. Constitution. It is what makes America a shining example of freedom and democracy to the world.

That the Bush Administration handled two terrorism cases (Jose Padilla and Ali Saleh ahlah al-Mari) differently than Holder handled the Abdulmutallab case, proves that Holder made the right call. Padilla and al-Mari had been arrested in the United States by law enforcement officials and criminally indicted. Both men were subsequently declared “enemy combatants” by President Bush and transferred into military custody, where they were detained without trial and held for long periods of interrogation. Following legal challenges, U.S. courts in both cases found that the government had exceeded its lawful authority. Bush subsequently relented and returned Padilla and al-Mari to federal court, where they were convicted and sentenced.

Ironically, no useful intelligence was gained from either Padilla or al-Mari while held in military detention. By contrast, Abdulmutallab immediately confessed and provided useful intelligence to FBI agents who questioned him for fifty minutes under the “public safety exception” to the right to remain silent. He is now cooperating extensively with the government in the course of his criminal case. That he was Mirandized and provided with counsel has not prevented him from further cooperating. In federal criminal cases, defendants routinely cooperate in the hope of obtaining a more lenient sentence. A carrot often carries more weight than a stick.

Holder’s decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in federal court on the 9/11 terrorism charges is no different than how U.S. administrations from Reagan onward have treated most such cases for nearly thirty years. The official policy of the Reagan administration, which contended with numerous terrorist acts in the 1980’s (e.g., the bombings of the Marine barracks in Beirut and of U.S. Embassies in Beirut and Kuwait; the bombing of Pan American Flight 103; the hijacking of Achille Lauro) was explained by L. Paul Bremer III, Reagan’s Ambassador-at-Large for Counter-Terrorism, during a speech before the Council of Foreign Relations in November 1987:

Another important measure . . . in our overall strategy is applying the rule of law to terrorists. Terrorists are criminals. They commit criminal actions like murder, kidnapping, and arson, and countries have laws to punish criminals. So a major element of our strategy has been to delegitimize terrorists, to get society to see them for what they are -- criminals -- and to use democracy’s most potent tool, the rule of law against them.
The Reagan administration got it right. All of these miscreants – Mohammed, Abdulmutallab, Zacarias Moussaoui, Richard Reid (the “shoe bomber”) – are nothing but common criminals. They deserve to be treated like any other criminal (albeit with added security measures and certain case-specific protective orders). They deserve a fair trial and, once the evidence proves them guilty, to be imprisoned or sentenced to death. Elevating them to a special status adds only to their mystique and gives them the status of hero and martyr among their fellow jihadists.

Circumventing the rule of law, or treating suspected terrorists as “enemy combatants,” holding them without charge, denying them a trial, or not allowing them to consult with counsel serves only to undermine the Constitution and the very foundations upon which our democracy rests. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hamden v. Rumsfeld that the Bush administration’s makeshift military commissions were illegal. These specially created tribunals permitted military judges to exclude detainees and their civilian counsel from major portions of their trials, and to prohibit them from ever learning of the evidence against them during those portions. The rules also allowed military prosecutors essentially to offer any evidence in support of the charges, including hearsay, unsworn statements, and coerced confessions. In a decision by Justice Stevens, the Supreme Court held that the commissions violated the American common law of war, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the “rules and precepts of the law of nations,” and the Geneva Conventions. By so deviating from past practices, and by not trusting our system of laws and justice, President Bush greatly damaged our credibility and standing in the world.

The federal court system is simply better equipped, in most cases, to handle these trials. It has been the venue for international terrorism cases since President Reagan authorized them in the 1980’s, and for other terrorist cases long before that. Federal prosecutors have at their disposal a wide array of criminal statutes, all with very clear sentencing guidelines, which can reach not just the terrorists themselves, but anyone who provides material support for, or who aids and abets, the terrorists. According to a study by NYU Law School, since 2001 U.S. criminal courts have convicted over 150 suspects on terrorism charges, while Bush’s military commissions have convicted just three, two of whom were since released and returned to their native countries while Bush was still president. Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, a former al-Qaeda propaganda chief, received a life sentence after he boycotted his military commission trial. The other two, Salim Hamdan, Osama bin-Laden’s former driver and confidante, and David Hicks, an Australian who joined al-Qaeda, served sentences of six months and nine months, respectively (over the time already served in custody), before being returned to their native countries. (For a terrific article on these matters, see Jane Mayer’s recent piece in The New Yorker.)

Two cases in particular show the distinctions between the federal criminal system of justice and that of military commissions – John Walker Lindh and Yaser Hamdi. Lindh, known as the American Taliban, and Hamdi, a Saudi-American, were both captured in Afghanistan in 2001. Lindh was charged criminally and pleaded guilty in federal court. He is now serving twenty years in prison. Hamdi was declared an enemy combatant and was held in military detention without charge. After a court challenge, in 2004 he was released, and he is now living in Saudi Arabia.

Holder has been the subject of right-wing attacks ever since he authorized a special counsel to review cases of torture committed by CIA operatives to determine if any U.S. laws were violated. Yet it was Ronald Reagan who signed the Convention Against Torture in 1988, which not only declared that there exists "no exceptional circumstances whatsoever" justifying torture, but also required all signatory countries to "ensure that all acts of torture are offenses under its criminal law." Reagan wanted each signatory country "either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution." As Glenn Greenwald of explains, the policies of Ronald Reagan no longer pass muster with today's conservative critics:

The express policies of the right-wing Ronald Reagan -- "applying the rule of law to terrorists"; delegitimizing Terrorists by treating them as "criminals"; and compelling the criminal prosecution of those who authorize torture -- are now considered on the Leftist fringe. Merely advocating what Reagan explicitly adopted as his policy -- "to use democracy’s most potent tool, the rule of law against" Terrorists -- is now the exclusive province of civil liberties extremists. In those rare cases when Obama does what Reagan's policy demanded in all instances and what even Bush did at times -- namely, trials and due process for accused Terrorists -- he is attacked as being "Soft on Terror" by Democrats and Republicans alike. And the mere notion that we should prosecute torturers (as Reagan bound the U.S. to do) -- or even hold them accountable in ways short of criminal proceedings -- is now the hallmark of a Far Leftist Purist. That's how far we've fallen, how extremist our political consensus has become.

Holder is hardly an ACLU activist. To the disappointment of many civil libertarians, Holder has not ruled out the use of military commissions (which have been reformed with added procedural and evidentiary protections). Indeed, the same day Holder announced that Mohammed and four others were to be tried in federal court for the 9/11 attacks, he also announced that five detainees would be tried before a military commission for the U.S.S. Cole bombings off the coast of Yemen in 2000. Holder deemed it important that “we be able to use every forum possible to hold terrorists accountable for their actions.” He explained that whether to proceed in federal court or before a military commission in a particular case is to be determined based on protocols established by the Departments of Justice and Defense, which look at “the nature of the offense, the location in which the offense occurred, the identity of the victims, and the manner in which the case was investigated.”

Holder has appropriately balanced the Constitution, the rule of law, and our nation’s security. He recognizes that not every case fits within the four corners of the traditional federal criminal case, but he properly insists that we proceed in every case with a fair, just, and effective mechanism for charging and trying all who wind up in U.S. custody. As Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent who specialized in terrorism cases, said recently in the New York Times:

Military commissions do serve an important purpose. We are at war, and for Qaeda terrorists caught on the battlefield who did not commit crimes inside the United States, or who killed American civilians abroad, military commissions are appropriate. But for terrorists like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who plotted to murder the innocent on United States soil, federal courts are not only more suitable, they’re our best chance at getting the strongest conviction possible.

Critics suggest that trying suspected terrorists in federal court will provide an “intelligence bonanza” to al-Qaeda, because criminal trials require that the government disclose its evidence to the defense and present it in open court. This concern is unfounded. The Classified Information Procedures Act, passed by Congress in 1980, allows the government, with the court’s consent, to withhold classified information, produce summaries or redacted versions, and disclose such information only to defense lawyers with high-level security clearances. Prosecutors routinely invoke this law during terrorism and espionage trials.

Critics also contend that, particularly in Mohammed’s case, a trial will allow terrorism defendants the ability to stand on a soapbox and spread jihadist propaganda. This concern is misplaced. First, federal courts do not permit photography, live broadcasts, or video recordings, so the circus-like atmosphere of an O.J. Simpson trial simply does not occur in federal court. Second, like military judges, federal judges have the authority to gag or remove defendants who attempt to disrupt the trial. Third, and most importantly, a public trial allows the world to see American justice at its best, to the great detriment of the terrorists. As Steven Simon of the Council of Foreign Relations put it in a November 2009 op-ed in the New York Times:

…Instead of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed making his case, we will see the full measure of the horror of 9/11 outlined to the world in a way that only methodical trials can accomplish. Historically, the public exposure of state-sponsored mass murder or terrorism through a transparent judicial process has strengthened the forces of good and undercut the extremists. The Nuremberg trials were a classic case. And nothing more effectively alerted the world to the danger of genocide than Israel’s prosecution in 1961 of Adolf Eichmann, the bureaucrat who engineered the Holocaust.
By contrast, indefinite incarceration without trial, or a military proceeding closed to the public followed by an execution, will only inspire militant jihadists. Transparency, fairness, due process, and the ideals of our Constitution are what strengthens America’s reputation and weakens the influence of radical Muslim clerics and others in the jihadist base.

The purpose of a criminal trial is not to suppress a political message, but to put forth a better message – that we believe in our judicial system, our Constitution, and the force of our laws. A federal trial for Mohammed and other suspected terrorists speaks volumes to what we stand for as Americans: justice, fairness, due process, and commitment to the rule of law. A system that permits secret trials, or no trials, or abridged trials that permit unreliable evidence and that has none of the basic procedural protections of American jurisprudence, is not a system worth defending.

It is notable that other countries victimized by major terrorist attacks over the last several years, including Britain, Spain, India, and Indonesia, have successfully tried and convicted the perpetrators of those terrorist acts in their civilian court systems, in the very cities in which the terror attacks occurred. These countries saw no need to invent special military commissions to short-circuit due process or to hold accused terrorists without trial. They acted in the spirit of the Reagan administration’s policies, to “use democracy’s most potent tool, the rule of law against them.” Why should the United States act differently?

It is disheartening to see so many people willing to throw away the Constitution’s basic rights. If Mohammed and his cohorts are guilty, as were Moussaoui and Reid and the 150 other terrorists we have convicted in federal court, then let us demonstrate it in a trial the world can judge as fair and just. Detaining people without charging them, without allowing them reasonably to defend themselves, and without giving them a fair trial – no matter the nature of the alleged crimes – is not the American way, is not justice, and is not a legal system worthy of this great nation.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Time To Repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell

There are moments in history when a nation must strive to make the ideals upon which it was founded a reality, when the principles of equality and justice must overcome the forces of tradition and fear. On February 2, 2010, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called on Congress to repeal the 1993 law that prohibits gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. Known colloquially as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the law has resulted in over 13,000 military discharges over the past sixteen years. At a time when the military is stretched to its limits, as we fight two wars halfway around the world and contend with threats to our security from multiple fronts, we have lost thousands of troops to a policy that no longer makes sense.

“I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens,” Admiral Mullen testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “For me personally, it comes down to integrity – theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.”

Discharged not for misconduct, but for a sexual orientation that is biologically and psychologically ingrained, we have lost to prejudice and ignorance some of our finest and most decorated soldiers; those who have served their country admirably and with honor, simply because they are gay. The damage to our national security and military readiness from this unjust policy is substantial. Among those discharged since 2003 are over 300 Arabic and Farsi translators, without whom success in Iraq and Afghanistan is not possible. Although gay service members, like all of our troops, face the threat of death every day, merely because of their sexual orientation they must forever look over their shoulders and live with the fear of being “found out.”

It is a policy based on prejudice, not performance. By singling out a group of Americans for second-class treatment, by forcing them to hide who they truly are and to live in fear of accusation and discharge, the law harms the nation; it makes the military weaker by depriving it of a large number of loyal and talented Americans.

The present policy places our military out of step with many of our allies, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Israel, and Australia, each of which allows gays to serve openly with no impact on military readiness, performance, cohesion, or the ability to recruit and retain troops. It is also out of step with public opinion. As noted in The Economist, a recent Gallup poll found that 69% of Americans believe that gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military. And a 2006 Zogby poll of those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan found that over 70% of service members are personally comfortable around gays and lesbians, and only 37% believe that gays should not be permitted to serve openly. It is undisputed that gays and lesbians have been serving side-by-side with distinction for decades in our military forces.

Air Force Colonel Om Prakash, who won the 2009 Secretary of Defense National Security Essay competition with a thoughtful and scholarly article published in the Joint Force Quarterly, contends that the law has been a “costly failure” whose stated premise – “to protect unit cohesion and combat effectiveness – is not supported by any scientific studies.” Because the law does not explicitly prohibit gays and lesbians from serving in the military – as long as they keep it a secret – it “has led to an uncomfortable value disconnect” as service members must “compromise personal integrity.” The psychological toll alone is too great for many to withstand, as an estimated 4,000 soldiers leave the military every year due to discomfort with an unjust policy. It also places commanders in the difficult position of being expected to know everything about their troops except for one important fact. As explained by Colonel Prakash, the 1993 law:
…was a political compromise reached after much emotional debate based on religion, morality, ethics, psychological rationale, and military necessity. What resulted was a law that has been costly both in personnel and treasure. In an attempt to allow homosexual Servicemembers to serve quietly, a law was created that forces a compromise in integrity, conflicts with the American creed of “equality for all,” places commanders in difficult moral dilemmas, and is ultimately more damaging to the unit cohesion its stated purpose is to preserve.
As a result of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the Army and Marine Corps have lowered their moral and aptitude standards to make up for recruiting shortages, granting “moral waivers” to thousands of new recruits, including those with felony convictions. Thus, rather than a highly qualified gay recruit with an exemplary record, the policy favors recruiting convicted felons. Even Barry Goldwater, the hero of the conservative movement forty years ago, recognized the absurdity of the present policy. “You don’t have to be straight in the military,” he once said, “You just have to be able to shoot straight.” If only his fellow Arizonan, Senator John McCain, had the same set of scruples.

In 2006, McCain told a group of college students that he would drop his objections to having gays serve openly in the military “the day the leadership of the military comes to me and says, ‘Senator, we ought to change the policy.’” That day came last Tuesday, when Admiral Mullen and Secretary Gates stated as clearly as possible, in McCain’s presence, that it is time to end an unjust, unworkable, and ineffective law. Senator McCain, however, appears to no longer value the opinions of the Generals, as he remains an outspoken opponent of repeal.

Even General Colin Powell, who strongly opposed President Bill Clinton’s attempt to end the discriminatory policy by executive order in 1993, now agrees that the policy needs to be re-evaluated. So does General John Shalikashvili, another former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who recently declared, “as a nation built on the principle of equality, we should recognize and welcome change that will build a stronger, more cohesive military.”

In 1948, President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces, recognizing that a policy that is based on prejudice and fear, that devalues the humanity of an entire class of military personnel and treats them as second-class citizens, is simply wrong. In 2010, these same principles apply to gay and lesbian service members who desire to serve our country with honor and integrity. A military committed to equal rights for all who desire and are capable of serving is a moral imperative.

President Obama is right for seeking the unequivocal repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and I find it heartening that Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen have spoken so eloquently and clearly in favor of the law’s reversal. This outdated law, based as it is on irrational fear and prejudice, sends the wrong signal to young people – straight and gay – who desire to serve our country and who are willing to risk their lives to protect our freedoms. If the United States values liberty, equality, diversity, and fairness, the U.S. military must be a place where soldiers can serve with integrity and honesty. The time for repeal has come.