The View From the Hill

Passing the Buck

by Ron Powers

Ron Powers is a Pulitzer Prize-winning and best-selling author who lives in Castleton, Vermont. His latest book, “No One Cares About Crazy People” about the dire state of mental health care in America and the loss of his talented guitar-playing son to the disease comes out in 2017. Here is his column:  

April 27 was a significant day in Vermont municipal governance. In Vermont governance. In governance. April 27 was a day on which The Buck stopped.

You remember The Buck. It’s that fabled tainted marker that is always bouncing from place to place in the world of politics because nobody wants to hold onto it. President Harry Truman famously snatched The Buck in 1945 and bolted it to his desk via a plaque that read: THE BUCK STOPS HERE. Since then, many pols have vowed that they were Buckstoppers too, just like Harry. Precious few of them managed to convince anyone.

And then on an early morning two Wednesdays ago, Chris Louras, the Mayor of Rutland, showed how easy—and how difficult—it was. Louras didn’t call his action Buckstopping; he didn’t call it anything. He just performed the act, with stunning simplicity and unapologetic courage that deserves more recognition around the United States than it will probably receive.

On that day Mayor Louras announced to an incredulous Rutland Board of Aldermen that he had negotiated a plan, in secret, with officials of the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department to commence, in October, the resettlement of 100 refugees from the blazing Hell-scape that is Syria into the Rutland community.

The Mayor did not resort to any elaborate, self-justifying rhetoric to try and fend off the inevitable uproar. He simply told the Board, “I do apologize if you feel blindsided. But if I had to do it over again I’d make the same decision.”

(He had chosen secrecy, Louras explained, to forestall the real risk of a public firestorm that would doom the initiative before it could be agreed upon. In the event, no such firestorm erupted, to the great credit of most Rutlanders, although ominous little brush-fires made their inevitable appearance.)

When is the last time you heard a politician to the left of Donald Trump speak that way? Hell, when is the last time you heard Donald Trump speak that way?

I’ve never met Chris Louras and I would never pretend to speak for him. I don’t need to. His course of action and his choice of words explain themselves.

Clearly, he was prepared for the blowback, and knew exactly which way it would blow. To conduct the negotiations in secret was to enter an ethically gray area. And it would hand his nativist-leaning opponents a convenient target for attacking the Syrian refugee idea without attacking the Syrian refugee idea.

Secrecy! The dissenting Aldermen (and many constituents) howled. They were shocked! Shocked! Secrecy is undemocratic! It is not the American way!

There’s truth in that. (Though the secret meetings were hardly in violation of a law.) Suspending habeas corpus is un-democratic and un-American too, and arguably un-Constitutional, and maybe Abraham Lincoln should not have done it in 1861, and freed a few hundred imprisoned Confederate sympathizers to run loose in undefended Washington. And suspending the rights and freedom of unconvicted prisoners at Guantanamo is likely un-Constitutional as well.

No easy sarcasm intended here. The point is that in matters of towering complexity and consequences for human life and death, rarely is any problem addressed without creating the seeds of an even worse problem. In Louras’s case, as mentioned, he was trying to avoid the risk of triggering the kind of pre-emptive rancor that has scarred American debate and posed dangers to innocent, defenseless people caught up in the evils of the world. Maybe he was wrong.

But let’s try to judge that question not by arguing from analogy, but by listening to some voices from either side of the issue—if a crisis of humanity on this scale can even be described with as banal a word as “issue.”

From Hilmi M. Zawati, chair of the International Center for Legal Accountability and Justice:

            “Since its eruption in March 2011, the Syrian peoples’ movement for freedom and democracy has . . . shifted from a peaceful uprising to a civil war. Several reports also indicate that the situation for Syrian women and girls is frightening. . . They have been assaulted in detention and interrogation centers; during home raids and searches, often in front of members of their families; and in public at checkpoints and roadblocks. They were, and still are, in a living death behind bars or in refugee camps inside and outside Syria, and continue to be vulnerable to different kinds of exploitation by both friends and foes . . .”

From Rep. Butch Shaw, R-Pittsford, to Mayor Louras: “We got our legs kicked out from underneath us. . . We need a measure of trust from you and from the city and from the county, and if we don’t get that, it’s damaging to us here in this building.”

From the journalist Sarah Dadouch, reporting from the village of Aleppo, which has been nearly leveled and incinerated by Syrian government air strikes: “Every day, people’s houses, schools, mosques and markets get bombed. Civil defense members try and save them. Then civil defense members get bombed. Hospital staff members try and save them. Then hospitals get bombed. So people leave for refugee camps. Their camps get bombed.”

From Vermont Digger, April 27, 2016: “Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, and others questioned whether the refugees would take advantage of already overburdened assistance programs like Medicaid or heating bill aid offered through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.”

From a CNN report of April 30, 2016: “An airstrike on a pediatric hospital in Syria has killed 50 people . . . at least six of the dead were hospital staff: two doctors, two nurses, one guard and one maintenance worker . . . the United Nations warns that the situation in Aleppo has become “catastrophic” in recent days . . .

Perhaps the last words should belong to Mayor Louras:

“There’s a clear understanding that this is not going to be easy. This could well be downright hard. However, when given a choice between an easier wrong and a harder right, always choose the harder rights, and this is the right thing to do for the community.”

Perhaps to some, that phrase, “a choice between an easier wrong and a harder right,” may sound a little precious and squishy-lib. Louras adapted it from the Cadet Prayer as written for the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1958.

That’s one of the places where the buck always stops.

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