For every action in American politics, there is not just an opposite and equal reaction but an opposite and more than equal over-reaction.
Call it Greenberg's Third Law of Motion, and today's example is on vivid display in the Senate of the United States, where a general officer's more than deserved promotion to vice commander of the U.S. Air Force's space program is being held hostage to political correctness.
Gen. Helms (U.S. Air Force Academy, Class of 1980) made headlines as a crewman on four (4) space-shuttle missions and a passenger on two others, including an historic journey to the International Space Station in 2001 that took five and a half months. She'd been there just a couple of days when, along with fellow astronaut Jim Voss, she would conduct the longest space walk in history: 8 hours, 56 minutes to repair a docking device and keep America's leadership in space exploration unchallenged.
Naturally, her reward in the Congress of the United States is to be denied promotion by a single member of the U.S. Senate, one Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri and Political Correctness).
The general's commander-in-chief, a civilian named Barack Obama, had the good judgment to nominate her for this prestigious -- and key -- command back in March of this year. This leader in space, as in the American military, fully deserves the recognition and additional responsibility.
But back on the ground in Washington, where politics has a way of taking precedence over everything else but today's ideological hobbyhorse, the general's promotion has been held up. Literally. Sen. and would-be Gen. McCaskill has put what's called a Permanent Hold on the general's confirmation.
There was a time when, even worse, this kind of personal power play could be kept secret by a senator -- a confession of just how shameful this low tactic can be -- but now at least the guilty party can be identified. And should be.
Why would the Senate of the United States withhold its consent from so clearly warranted a promotion? Because the abuse of women in the U.S. military has become a national scandal and, even though the exact number of rapes and assaults may be debatable, there's no doubt something awful is going on, and that something needs to be done about it.
And so Sen. McCaskill, in the kind of over-reaction that has become common in American politics, does too much. (See third law of motion, above.)
It seems the general, fully in keeping with her command responsibilities, granted clemency last year to an Air Force captain who was accused -- and convicted -- by a court martial that found him guilty of aggravated sexual assault.
Bad as that sounds, a close reading of the testimony in his case reveals that his trial wasn't just another he said, she said affair but more like he (and various other witnesses) said vs. the accuser. Plus another later complainant in a different incident.
Let's just say the evidence is mixed, because a newspaper columnist has no business passing legal judgments without benefit of a judge and jury, or in this case commander and presiding officer. And neither does a U.S. senator.
When this case reached Gen. Helms' desk, as it should have in the chain of command, she overruled the court-martial's verdict in keeping with her authority to review such judgments. And she did so on the ground that the prosecutors had failed to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Appellate courts make such decisions from time to time in a country where we're all to be judged innocent till proven guilty, or at least guilty of some lesser offense. Which is what Capt. Matthew Herrera eventually pled guilty to -- an "indecent act." And was involuntarily discharged. As someone with his record of what used to be called catting around should have been.
The captain is clearly no gentleman and, justifiably enough, he is no longer an officer, But that doesn't make him guilty of sexual assault whatever judge-and-jury, senator-and-ideologue Claire McCaskill chooses to believe -- and, worse, punish him for.
The senator said the general's review of this court martial "sent a damaging message to survivors of sexual assault who are seeking justice in the military justice system." Really? Just who is being unjust here, and sending damaging messages to those duty-bound to follow the law, the senator or the general, isn't as clear as Sen. McCaskill would have the rest of us believe.
There was a lot of talk during the last presidential campaign about a War on Women, some of it more heated than illuminating. Are we now going to make up for any mistreatment of women in the military by waging a separate but unequal war on men?
. . .
Why not just let the Uniform Code of Military Justice operate as it should, whether the commanding general is male or female? Or would that be unacceptably fair?
Gen. Helms had every right, indeed duty, to rule as she did. Will other commanders do as well if they know that, should they follow their conscience and judgment, some senator is going to punish them for it not on legal but political/ideological grounds?
Over the course of an exemplary career of service to her country, not to mention to science and discovery, Susan Helms, Lt. Gen., USAF, has demonstrated a fealty to both good sense and good judgment. Sen. McCaskill, as in this case, hasn't.
Worse may be yet to come. The U.S. House of Representatives has already voted to strip commanders of their lawful authority to grant clemency -- at a time when an overstretched and stressed-out American military doesn't need a new layer of lawyers to second-guess and even undo its chain of command. It has enough problems just now, thank you, without a Claire McCaskill adding to them.
All the talk in Congress about supporting our troops resounds hollow when a U.S. senator decides to meddle with a U.S. military code of justice whose roots go back to a time even before there was a U.S military, and a new continental army was commanded by a general named George Washington. This contemporary general's decision was fully in keeping with that code and long tradition. If anybody needs censuring by the U.S. Senate, it's not Susan Helms, but Claire McCaskill.
(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)