President Bush released another list of people he's condescended to pardon, and for the most part it's another unexceptionable bunch.One of the current group is a posthumous pardon, lobbied for by no less a person than Steven Spielberg. He petitioned for the rehabilitation of a man named Charles Winters, who was once upon a time convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison for violating the Neutrality Act. He violated the law by flying a plane to Israel for use as a bomber during its first war against the Arabs in 1948 -- a conflict toward which the United States, at the time, was officially neutral. In applauding Bush's action, an attorney credits him with recognizing Winters' right to act according to what he considered a moral imperative.
Winters is actually the third such gunrunner, but the only one who ever served time, to be pardoned for violating the Neutrality Act in favor of Israel. It seems to be a way for American presidents to retroactively revoke our neutrality of 1948. But rather than start a fresh debate about Israel itself, let's question the precedent these pardons set. Is any American entitled to put his conscience or her moral sense at odds with the law? If acknowledging a "moral imperative" in foreign affairs means pardoning a lawbreaker, couldn't the same moral imperative serve as a legal defense in a criminal trial? Couldn't someone also invoke the "moral imperative" defense when accused of aiding an actual enemy of the United States? You'd imagine not, and by doing so, you'd acknowledge that moral imperatives have limited force under a rule of law. On some occasions, each citizen in a democratic republic has to subordinate "moral imperatives" to national interests as defined by law. The Neutrality Act would seem to be such a case. If you can't compromise your morals under the law, then you have the option of civil disobedience, which includes accepting whatever penalty the government imposes on you. To his credit, Winters, to my knowledge, never asked for a pardon while he lived. However, it ill becomes people like Spielberg to plead for a pardon that can't help but amount to a retroactive endorsement of lawbreaking. Why bother having a Neutrality Act if someone can violate it, at whatever present risk, with the thought that history will vindicate him?
If the U.S. intends to be neutral in any international conflict, that obliges every American to be neutral in conduct, whatever they think about the situation. If an American can't live under that constraint, let him do what his conscience dictates without the endorsement or protection of his government. If he can't abide by the foreign policy of his country, let him become a man without a country. Winters paid the price of his offense and returned to private life. America owed him nothing more. This is not a knock on Bush, since other Presidents pardoned the other offenders, but his action today did nothing for Winters, and was only for other people's benefit.