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trea·sonnoun – the crime of betraying one’s country, especially by attempting to kill the sovereign or overthrow the government.

That may be the way jurists in other countries define treason. In the United States, we do not define it that way at all. Article III of the Constitution gives a narrow definition of the crime: “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” By design, the narrow definition prevented sovereigns and other political actors from using charges of treason to rid themselves of enemies.

Currently we skirt these issues with the somewhat mushier adjective, ‘treasonous’. John Brennan, Barack Obama’s CIA director, wrote in July, 2018: ‘Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous.’

President Trump never one to skirt any issue, ‘accused former FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page of committing treason when they took steps to investigate his possible ties to Russia.’ “They wanted to do a subversion. It was treason. It was really treason.”

I guess that’s the beauty of free speech. You can use words any way you want, then see if someone objects. With false accusations, though, we get a little touchy. Some would say loose accusations of treason count as violations of the Seventh Commandment. Others might call it a macro-aggression. News outlets may deal in rumors, insinuations, and innuendo, but in the political arena you go for blood.

Almost ten years ago I launched two books, Revolution in the Air, and Revolution on the Ground. I affectionately call them RITA and ROTG. In the first one, I wanted to think about why revolutionary sentiments had become more common in our country. In the second one, I wanted to think about how you would undertake a revolution in America. In both books, I did more than think, and advocated we alter or abolish our government.

People familiar with English political theory will recognize those two verbs: ‘alter or abolish’. They come to us from John Locke, who articulated a people’s ‘right of revolution’ shortly after Parliament beheaded King Charles in London for treason. Locke was sixteen years old at the time. Locke was interested in the rights of Parliament vis a vis the sovereign, but I’m not sure he regarded Charles’ death as the best way to abolish a government.

In any case, in this country we do not regard any act directed against the state as a crime, unless the act be violent. Nonviolent efforts to alter or overthrow governments never count as crimes, even if government uses the Espionage Act to convict innocent people. Under Woodrow Wilson, for example, feds convicted Eugene Debs under the Act after he delivered an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, and sentenced him to ten years in prison. Already in his mid-sixties, three years in the Atlanta Penitentiary broke his health.

Read this excerpt from Debs’ speech to the court when he was convicted:

“When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the Southern Cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches the Southern Cross begins to bend, and the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of Time upon the dial of the universe; and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the look-out knows that the midnight is passing – that relief and rest are close at hand.

“Let the people take heart and hope everywhere, for the cross is bending, midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.”

By contrast, read Wilson’s mean justification for not granting Debs a pardon:

“While the flower of American youth was pouring out its blood to vindicate the cause of civilization, this man, Debs, stood behind the lines sniping, attacking, and denouncing them….This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration.”

One hardly needs to add that Debs did not direct his criticism toward soldiers who fought in France, but to the commander-in-chief who sent them there – namely, Woodrow Wilson.

We will let Debs have the last word: “The most heroic word in all languages is revolution.”

Thus we see that labelling a leader a traitor to his country, then sending him to prison on those grounds, is always something government can pull out of its pocket when it perceives a nuisance, a threat, or merely an inconvenient critic. People use the word treason or traitor as the ultimate convenience in the ring, or as we would say now, the epithet offers an easy takedown. Unfortunately, easy takedowns debase the word, so when true betrayal comes along, we stand a good chance not to recognize it.

Related article

Eugene V. Debs – Wikipedia