These Days, Everyone Dares Call It Treason

American turncoat Benedict Arnold persuades Maj. John Andre to conceal papers in his boot and send them to the British to enable them to capture West Point in this print by C.F. Blauvelt and W. Wellstood circa 1785.

American turncoat Benedict Arnold persuades Maj. John Andre to conceal papers in his boot and send them to the British to enable them to capture West Point in this print by C.F. Blauvelt and W. Wellstood circa 1785.

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itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Hurling around a word like "treason," the Chicago Sun-Times has observed, "is the definition of dirty politics."

If that be the case, this particular political season is dirtier than a West Texas hog wallow.

The word is being bandied about by lots of people. Perhaps most famously: Republican presidential aspirant Rick Perry said in Iowa in August that the fact that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is "printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treacherous — treasonous, in my opinion."

In response, Nouriel Roubini of New York University — according to Politico — shot back: "Perry's remarks on Bernanke are criminal."

Jon Huntsman, another Republican presidential wannabe, also objected to Perry's use of the incendiary word, telling ABC News, "I'm not sure that the average voter out there is going to hear that 'treasonous' remark and say that sounds like a presidential candidate, that sounds like someone who is serious on the issues."

Then, lo and behold, Huntsman turned around and used the word himself a few weeks later in the CNN/Tea Party Express debate, "For Rick to say that you can't secure the border I think is pretty much a treasonous comment."

Politicians and public figures of all stripes — including Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, Democratic senatorial candidate Alexi Giannoulias of Illinois and independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York — have hurled the word in the past year.

To many, it is among the vilest of charges. Statements like those by Perry "trivialize the crime of treason," says Washington attorney Debbie Hines, creator of the LegalSpeaks blog. "Treason is the highest offense committed against our country by someone attempting to overthrow it or giving aid to our enemies, punishable by death. A treasonous act is so severe that liberties should not be taken lightly or loosely when using the term."

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (right) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry confer during a break in the Sept. 12 presidential debate in Tampa. Huntsman first objected to Perry's use of the word "treasonous" then later used it himself. i i

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (right) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry confer during a break in the Sept. 12 presidential debate in Tampa. Huntsman first objected to Perry's use of the word "treasonous" then later used it himself.

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itoggle caption Win McNamee/Getty Images
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (right) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry confer during a break in the Sept. 12 presidential debate in Tampa. Huntsman first objected to Perry's use of the word "treasonous" then later used it himself.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (right) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry confer during a break in the Sept. 12 presidential debate in Tampa. Huntsman first objected to Perry's use of the word "treasonous" then later used it himself.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

After all, as Justice William O. Douglas once opined, treason "is the worst crime of all."

However, in this particular society — open, self-governing and relatively tolerant of hype and hyperbole — the charge of treason is so difficult to prove, the word loses its meaning and its might.

So why do politicians call each other traitors and treasonous? And why is the word still so supercharged?

A Matter Of Trust

The word has its origins in an old French word meaning "betray." It's the same word that "traitor" comes from. Calling someone a "traitor" or their actions "treasonous" is a quick way to peg them as un-American, or at least, not as American as the accuser.

It is the only crime defined in the U.S. Constitution: Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

Treason, says Brian Carso, is a word that "has always been used as a prominent shorthand to evoke the intellectual and emotional content surrounding issues of loyalty, allegiance and betrayal."

Carso, an assistant professor of history and government at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., is the author of Whom Can We Trust Now?: The Meaning of Treason in the United States, from the Revolution through the Civil War.

Beyond Benedict Arnold

In the history of the U.S. there have been about 40 actual prosecutions for the crime of treason. Benedict Arnold may be the most well-known case, but the list of accused traitors over the years also includes:

Aaron Burr. The 1807 trial of former Vice President Burr — showcasing some of the country's finest minds, including Burr, Marshall and Thomas Jefferson — ended in acquittal, partially because of the two-witness stipulation.

Iva Ikuko Toguri, also known as Tokyo Rose. This Japanese American broadcast propaganda messages during World War II designed to demoralize American troops. She was tried in 1949 and convicted. She served seven years in prison and was eventually pardoned by President Gerald Ford.

Mildred Gillars, also known as Axis Sally. Another propagandist — who broadcast in Nazi Germany — Gillars was convicted of treason in 1949 and served 12 years in prison.

Adam Yahiye Gadahn. In 2006 the Justice Department indicted Adam Gadahn, a Californian who signed up to be a propaganda expert for al-Qaida.

The definition of the crime is in the Constitution "primarily because allegiance is a necessary precondition of government, and treason law is one way to define allegiance," Carso explains. "Secondarily, in a free society that depends on disagreement and debate for self-government, the restrictive nature of the treason clause helps to prevent oppression."

Despite its simple meaning, treason is one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute, according to legal scholars. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the longest single opinion of his 35 years on the bench, Carso says, grappling with the full ramifications of the one-sentence definition.

'Worse Than Murder Or Rape'

Since its inclusion in the U.S. Constitution, there have only been about 40 actual prosecutions. The greatest example of treason in this country and "part of the U.S. creation story," Carso adds, "is the betrayal of Washington and the Patriot cause by Benedict Arnold in 1780."

Today, accusations of treason fly about with alacrity and acidity. Writer William Blum has noted that "America's state religion is patriotism, a phenomenon which has convinced many of the citizenry that 'treason' is morally worse than murder or rape."

But armed with the understanding that the receiver of the epithet — traitor or treasonous — will most likely never actually have to actually stand trial, politicians use the term with abandon in an exaggerated, hyperbolic way.

"Until the average American citizen can talk about abstract ideas like political obligation — which will not be anytime soon, presumably," Carso says, "then we will continue to hear 'treason' as a way to conjure people's deep-seated feelings toward their sense of national identity."

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