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Commentary: Responding to readers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 28, 2009 - Hard to believe, but I've been writing for the Beacon for more than a year now. During my tenure here, many of you have taken the time to comment on my articles. 

Whether pro or con, I appreciate your comments and the fact that you took the trouble to read my work, consider the opinions expressed in it, and then respond. (Effusive praise is especially welcome.)

Some have questioned why I don't correspond with readers to defend my position on a given issue or to counter their objections to a remark I've made. The answer to that one is two-fold:

The first involves the tradition of artistic silence. When novelists or playwrights publish, they submit their work for critical review but generally refrain from arguing with their critics, the idea being that the work should speak for itself.

While I don't claim to be cranking out anything resembling art, I think the same principle applies: The column either stands or falls on its own merits. I get a chance to say my piece, you remark on it, and other readers can consider both views before making up their minds for themselves.

The second reason involves an economy of time. You've probably noticed that when Forbes publishes its annual list of the best-paid professions, "on-line newspaper columnist" never appears along with the featured corporate CEOs, hedge fund managers and Wall Street swindlers.

That means that I have to work a real job in addition to writing. Between my day job at the Sheriff's Office, teaching a night school course at a local university, and writing a weekly column, I often can't respond to readers' comments in a timely fashion.

That said, I thought I'd devote today's column to discussing some of the more contentious issues that have engendered reader outrage.

Helmet Laws

Last February, I wrote that I opposed mandatory helmet laws for motorcyclists because "...adult decisions that imperil no one but the actor are none of a democratic government's business."

A reader identified as "kopper" rather uncharitably characterized my position as "bullshit" and pointed out that we all have to pay for the medical treatment needed by helmetless bikers involved in accidents.

Dear kopper: Your barnyard epithet notwithstanding, you raise a good point. But where does all this end? If it's safer to ride with a helmet, it's safer still to not ride at all. Let's just outlaw motorcycles.

Smoking's a proven health hazard, so let's ban that bad habit while we're at it. Obesity is now thought to cause as many deaths as smoking -- there go jumbo cheeseburgers, deluxe pizzas and banana splits. Drunk driving is a problem. Why not bring back prohibition so there'll be no drunks to drive? Sexually transmitted diseases are said to be on the rise. Maybe prospective lovers should have to undergo mandatory physicals at a government clinic before obtaining a copulation license.

There is clearly a collective cost for personal freedom, but in my book it's still a good bargain because the alternative is tyrannically grim.

Torture

Several readers wrote in response to a late April column in which I opined that President Obama erred by releasing the so-called "CIA torture memos" Their arguments were well thought out and raised excellent points about a difficult issue for which there is no facile answer. One commentator, "AJS," wrote a second time in apparent frustration, "Looks like Mr. Guzy doesn't bother to read or respond to people who demolish his flimsy arguments."

Not so, AJS, I read all comments, and my flimsy arguments are own their own once they're printed. Demolish away. But here's the point: Torture is -- and should be -- illegal. It cannot be condoned or excused. If you're going to break the law to save the nation from a dire threat, you'd do well to keep your mouth shut about it. If you're too squeamish to lie, you should also be too squeamish to water-board.

If President Obama were going to release the torture memos he inherited, he had to be willing to follow their revelation to its logical conclusion. By detailing crimes and then failing to prosecute, he reaps the worst of both worlds -- transparency without consequence.

And though the president has the power to pardon charges brought by the federal government, what should he do if he receives an extradition warrant from The Hague for, say, Dick Cheney? If he delivers the former VP to stand trial before the World Court for war crimes, he ignites a domestic political firestorm and sets a chilling precedent for future office-holders entrusted with the nation's security. If he refuses, he further tarnishes America's image abroad by violating the provisions of a treaty we were instrumental in drafting.

Apparently, Mr. Obama has belatedly recognized the advantages of keeping skeletons in their closets. He recently reneged on an earlier promise to release photos of the offending techniques in actual application.

Friendly aside to the community of spooks who performed all this enhanced interrogation: Though it's only human to reminisce, it's generally still a good idea not to be photographed while committing multiple felonies. What part of "covert operations" didn't you understand?

More Later

I was going to respond to some rather spirited commentary about articles I'd written concerning second-hand smoke and global warming but spatial limitations preclude that for the moment. I'll get around to those topics in the coming weeks. In the meantime, keep those cards and letters coming...

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.

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