I hate seeing people publicly humiliated for the sexual things they do in private. But the government is criminally prosecuting a woman, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, for what it says was a prostitution ring. These are federal charges, and the senator, David Vitter, has some responsibility for the laws that make this prosecution possible.
Vitter situates his misdeed in the realm of religion and private morality:
"This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible"...Oh, well, if God has forgiven him...
"Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling... Out of respect for my family, I will keep my discussion of the matter there -- with God and them. But I certainly offer my deep and sincere apologies to all I have disappointed and let down in any way."
Palfrey can't say God has forgiven her and walk free. In fact, Vitter's statement hurts Palfrey because it strongly implies that Palfrey was doing what she's accused of. Vitter's confession -- intended to move us to mercy -- links him to criminal activity, but only she is facing criminal punishment.
Shouldn't the expiation of Vitter's sins wait until he has introduced a bill that would create a federal right to engage in the business of prostitution? It's not a matter to be resolved within the realm of church and family as long as Palfrey is being prosecuted.
UPDATE: James Taranto links here and asks:
How would advocating the legalization of prostitution expiate Vitter's sins? Prostitution is illegal because it is wrong, not the other way around. The reason we have laws at all is not so that "good" people can impose their will on "bad" people, but because everyone has the capacity to do bad things. Thus it's not surprising that moralists sometimes turn out to be hypocrites. They are moralists because they are closely acquainted with the temptation to do wrong.Taranto isn't reading me carefully. I'm not talking about what Vitter needs to do to expiate his sins. I'm talking about what Vitter needs to do to make it only an issue of sin. My point is -- quite clearly -- that as long as Palfrey is incapable of treating this as a matter between herself and God, it is not morally logical for Vitter to claim that capacity for himself. He must first take whatever action he can to put Palfrey in the same position he wants for himself. Vitter is a member of Congress, and Palfrey is being prosecuted under federal law. He cannot morally turn away from her plight while he holds power.
ANOTHER UPDATE: James Taranto responds to my response:
Althouse's original words were: "Shouldn't the expiation of Vitter's sins wait until he has introduced a bill that would create a federal right to engage in the business of prostitution?" It would take a careful reader indeed to conclude that Althouse is not referring to "what Vitter needs to do to expiate his sins."
Indeed, we expect careful reading here on Althouse. When you see a concise and puzzling sentence, remember to pause and think deeply -- especially if you want to write about it!
Anyway, the argument is illogical on several levels. For one, the crime Vitter is thought to have committed, patronizing a prostitute, is different from the crimes with which Palfrey is charged: racketeering and conspiracy. (Prostitution is under state and local jurisdiction.) Does Althouse think Vitter should introduce legislation to decriminalize racketeering and conspiracy?
No, I think he should -- as I wrote -- introduce a bill that would create a federal right to engage in the business of prostitution! Congress has the power to do that under the Commerce Clause, and it would preempt the state law that currently criminalizes prostitution. The conspiracy and racketeering laws would remain intact, but the state law they draw on would no longer include a crime of prostitution. See? Nothing permanently puts prostitution "under state and local jurisdiction." It can be federalized.
Further, the idea that Vitter is getting off easy seems to have it backward. The proper comparison here would be not to Palfrey but to others situated similarly to Vitter -- i.e., those who may be incriminated by Palfrey's phone records. Among this group, Vitter is being singled out for humiliating attention owing to his status as an elected official. However much Vitter might like to treat this as a matter "between himself and God," it is also a matter between the news media and Larry Flynt and the voters of Louisiana and political junkies and voyeurs all over the world.
I didn't say Vitter "is getting off easy." In fact, I feel sorry for him. I am simply objecting to his announcement that it's a private matter in the realm of family and religion. And I don't see why Taranto thinks he can simply announce what the "proper comparison" is. Palfrey faces prison. It is a very serious matter for the government to take away a person's freedom. Why should Vitter be able to say it's no concern of his? He was part of the same illegal behavior that she is being prosecuted for. He holds a position of legislative power. I'm saying that if he wants to say that the wrong he did is something to be dealt with exclusively as a private matter, he's morally obligated to use the power he has to make prostitution a private matter for her too.
I realize the media are slavering over this too. I'm not saying that's right. But it doesn't absolve him of his wrongs. As for the comparison to other clients who have less to lose from exposure -- it is always the case that getting accused of wrongdoing has an impact on your life that depends on the particularities of your life.