A man sits in prison, serving a life sentence after committing grave crimes against his country. Meanwhile, his aged father lies dying. The prisoner asks to be released for one day to say goodbye at his father’s bedside. The authorities say no; by some accounts, they do not even reply to his request. His father dies, and he asks to be released for one day to attend the funeral. Again, he is turned down, reportedly after high-level diplomatic consultations.
This is, of course, Jonathan Pollard’s story. But I presented it anonymously because it shouldn’t matter whose story it is. Pollard is a prisoner, but he is still a human being. Honoring our parents by burying them appropriately is one of the defining duties of our humanity. Preventing a human being from discharging that duty is an elemental wrong.
Governments typically deal in aggregates and make decisions affecting millions. Sometimes, however, it comes down to an encounter between state power and a single individual. I do not claim that the moral principles that shape relations among individuals transfer neatly to the acts of public authorities. There is a difference, even if we argue about the specifics of the distinction. Still, basic precepts of decency and mercy do not lose all force when one moves from private to public status.
The Secretary of State and the Attorney-General owe us an explanation. In fact, the President of the United States owes us an explanation. My question is simple: What considerations of public safety, or national security, or international relations were so weighty as to override the dictates of simple humanity?
I do not know whether it is standard practice in the U.S. penal system to allow prisoners to attend their parents’ funeral. If it isn’t, it should be. Nor do I know whether the Israeli government prevents some Palestinian prisoners from attending funerals, as Palestinian spokesmen have recently charged. If that is the case, the Israelis should reexamine their policy and ask themselves whether national security truly requires it.
These are legitimate questions, but they do not touch the core of the point I’m making: There are times when you don’t need an elaborate moral argument to identify a straightforward wrong. If I’m right, the U.S. government’s treatment of Pollard’s request is one of the times. For high officials to persist in their obstinate silence only deepens the wrong.
William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor for The New Republic.