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Nullification: Wrong in 1832 And in 1995 : The republic cannot survive if slave owners, train derailers and murder case jurors decide which laws they will and won't obey.

October 12, 1995|JAMES P. PINKERTON

Many Americans learned a new word after the O.J. Simpson verdict: nullification. The Los Angeles jury was accused of ignoring the evidence and refusing to follow the law. Nullification is not a new idea: A century-and-a-half ago, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina proclaimed his state's right to treat unpopular federal statutes as nullities. That helped to provoke the Civil War. Then and now, the survival of the republic depends on the willingness of all Americans to live under the same law. In the wake of the Unabomber, Ruby Ridge, Waco, Oklahoma City and now the Arizona train terror, homegrown law-nullifying crazies on all sides have eroded the common ground upon which our civil society rests.

As recently as last Sunday, Louis Farrakhan, that uncontrite anti-Semite, asserted on "This Week with David Brinkley" that "big Jews" financed Hitler and thereby profited from Nazi tyranny. If the upcoming Million Man March on Washington unfolds in the image of its race-baiting leader, then next Monday will not be a day of atonement at all, but rather an occasion for further division.

In politics as in physics, every action generates a reaction. So if one group vacates the rule of reason, others will abandon the social contract as well. Middle-class Americans of all ethnicities are moving farther away from troubled cities, hiring more guards, buying more firearms. Just a few years ago, the trend was toward more gun control; today, the breakdown of the criminal justice system has encouraged people to take matters into their own hands. If a battered spouse, for example, believes that no help will be forthcoming from a 911 emergency call, then National Rifle Assn.-type arguments--better to be judged by 12 than carried by six--are going to be persuasive. Twenty-eight states have laws empowering citizens to carry concealed weapons. In the few months since Texas changed its law, more than 200,000 residents have applied for permits.

The science fiction author Robert Heinlein once joked that an armed society is a polite society. If present trends continue, we'll find out if he was right. But we should know that once our guns are drawn, it will be hard to get them back into their holsters.

Wouldn't it be nice if we had a President who could address these concerns? Three years ago, Bill Clinton offered himself as the leader who could heal racial divisions by simultaneously expanding opportunity and ending welfare as we know it. But as President, he squandered his mandate for positive reform in a series of personal and policy missteps.

The best that Clinton has been able to say so far is that he has been "struck" by racial polarization in America. For that he needs the bully pulpit? Clinton might yet redeem himself if he were to cite Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist opposite of Calhoun, who said, "I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of man." In other words, skin color must not be a rationale--or an excuse--for lawlessness. No doubt the talkative Clinton will have more to say on these matters. But if he is to be a unifying force in a time of disunity, the President must strive to re-establish the formal as well as informal virtues that would knit together an increasingly diverse population.

In the absence of useful national leadership, others have stepped forward. Susan Estrich of USC Law School was blunt in the wake of the Simpson verdict: "The only way we end up living together--whether it's women and men or blacks and whites or across the racial and gender divides--is if we all live by the same set of rules." She added, "The job of juries ought to be to find the facts and apply the law, not to solve these much larger social problems which we need political leadership to address."

Indeed, no complex issue can be resolved at its own level. Those who would revalidate both the Constitution and the commonweal will need the aid of new tools: empowerment, educational reform and entrepreneurship. These are the instruments that can make all Americans stakeholders in a post-bureaucratic Good Society.

Today, the many types of nullification reinforce each other. Each repudiation of melting-pot ideals justifies the next retaliation. Provocateurs, the verbal and the violent, will render the heart of American society null and void--if we let them.


James P. Pinkerton's book, "What Comes Next: The End of Big Government--and the New Paradigm Ahead," was published this month by Hyperion.

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