Falling On One’s Own Sword Has Some Benefits

Poor people have been falling on their swords for centuries without much fanfare. They drop like flies to avoid pain and lengthy prison terms for tasting the fruit of crimes that collectively wouldn’t cover what Trump steals in a year. It’s that or get steamrolled.

The new sentencing reform bill is supposed to cut down on their problem. Perhaps. Chortling members of Congress claim the revamping will drop the federal penal population by 50,000 inmates by 2025. They didn’t say what the holdup was.

Rich people used to lead the pack in self-destruction for wicked behavior to protect family honor. Honor was the wall that divided common folk from the aristocracy. Treason, cowardice, perjury, murder, adultery and stealing outside of business would all drive the afflicted to provide a final lesson in correctness.

Falling on one’s sword was a very principled affair where nobody interfered with a once-distinguished gentleman who wished to atone with the only thing left, his life. Women also atoned, but very quietly; their fate was whispered rather than discussed. The decedent’s immediate departure assured that many potential problems had also been resolved.

The phrase “falling on your sword” is an idiomatic expression that does not rule out guns, knives, poison, long falls, and crude gallows as instruments of self-destruction. Public termination, however, was consider gauche except in matters of honor. If a duel couldn’t settle the question, suicide would. The purpose of such a gruesome dispatch was redemption, in a military officer’s case, by burnishing his sullied reputation with blood to restore the luster of past achievements.

While watching retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn walk out of federal court on Tuesday, surrounded by protesters with signs labeling him a traitor, it occurred to me that in another place and time he would be expected to do the “right thing,”  a euphemistic expression for “blow your brains out.”

Flynn dishonored his colleagues and his service, as well as the ideals and institutions of military life that seem so quaint and silly anywhere else. He thinks the right thing to do is play the victim, a polar opposite response to what the U.S. Army says honor is:

“HONOR . . . The nation’s highest military award is The Medal of Honor. This award goes to Soldiers who make honor a matter of daily living — Soldiers who develop the habit of being honorable, and solidify that habit with every value choice they make. Honor is a matter of carrying out, acting, and living the values of respect, duty, loyalty, selfless service, integrity and personal courage in everything you do.”

There is not a lot of wiggle room.

Donald Trump, well known to be dishonorable and disreputable long before he was a president, could never have risen so high in any military service. Military officers largely dismiss braggarts and liars as beneath their consideration. Trump would have considered himself lucky if he met his end riding on a wooden rail spitting out chicken feathers. Flynn, however, did many things right before ego and greed got the best of him. Sadly, he and Trump found common ground there.

Since the middle of the 19th Century, the actual practice of suicide to escape dishonor has generally fallen into disrepute, replaced by non-lethal legal retribution. Tuesday in Federal District Court in Washington, the judge, Emmet G. Sullivan, viewed Flynn’s crimes as serious enough to warrant prison time despite a recommendation of leniency from prosecutors. Sullivan excoriated Flynn, and by direct association Trump, after the former distinguished general reluctantly agreed to assume responsibility for all manner of odious acts that dishonored his country, his colleagues and the faith of his nation.

After Flynn declared his personal disdain and public animus, Sullivan sent him home to burnish his reputation some more. If Flynn was Joe Schmuckatelli, his next home would be a receiving-and-classification center in the U.S. Department of Corrections, where he would remain until the promised great prison kick-out.

The judge’s stern rebuke was no doubt heartfelt, but it was also a red, white and blue blinking neon sign proclaiming that people like Mike Flynn are more important and special than ordinary folks. All pigs are equal, the judge’s order says, but some pigs are more equal than others.

Flynn’s treatment begs the question of why. Why should a veritable traitor to the ideals and liberties of our democracy be treated better than perpetrators of arguably lower-ranked crimes committed by ordinary people? Every day the unranked millions of worker bees who power government with their toil get the bum’s rush to justice on the way to a mandatory prison sentence they can’t escape. Why not Flynn?

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