Stephanie Morse

Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018

Act of history: McSally, Sinema treason accusation steeped in divisive political times

TEMPE – Political opponents are increasingly hurling accusations of treason at one another in an attempt to influence voters, a history professor said one day after Republican Martha McSally flung the word at Kyrsten Sinema in their only debate for a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona. Sinema called the move “ridiculous.”

Arizona State University history professor Peter Van Cleave said a tense and divisive climate is turning the word into a popular political weapon – one that can work.

“The term does speak to a broader culture we’re seeing of intense political partisanship,” Van Cleave said Tuesday. “It could have a direct impact on the electorate. It can sway people’s opinions and influence their vote.”

The Constitution defines treason as an act of war against the U.S. or conspiring with the country’s enemies against an ally. The crime is considered so serious it is punishable by death.

“Because of the seriousness of treason you rarely see it brought to bear in the United States,” Van Cleave said. “Even more serious acts in history that you think of that you may consider treason –– those were brought as acts of conspiracy, not treason.”

But he said politicians wield treason in a moral sense rather than a legal sense.

“I do see this as more rhetoric and political positioning against an opponent,” Van Cleave said. “It’s another political descriptor of trying to frame your opponent in a specific light.”

McSally accused Simena of treason near the end of a debate Monday night on Arizona PBS , based on comments Simena made about the Taliban during a 2003 radio interview.

“CNN reported that in 2003, while she was on the radio, you said it was OK for Americans to join the Taliban to fight against us” McSally said. “I want to ask right now whether you’re going to apologize to the veterans and me for saying it’s OK to commit treason?”

As Simena started to respond, McSally interrupted: “It’s treason.”

Sinema, a Democrat, said her Republican opponent took the 2003 comments out of context and called the treason claim “ridiculous.”

“The charge of treason has a very particular purpose and the accusation is of a particular kind going back to Sinema’s actions during the Iraq war and opposition to the Iraq war,” Van Cleave said. “The charge is not what McSally is after but the implication.”

Van Cleave said politicians carrying treason as political ammunition is nothing new, with George Washington, the nation’s first president, trying to bludgeon those who criticized him.

“Even in early America, treason was used as a political weapon as much as its actually used as a grievance against the state,” he said.

Politicians revived “treason” with that political twist during the 2016 election, when a few Republicans accused Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton of treason for using her personal email server and mishandling classified emails.

More recently, some Democrats have accused President Donald Trump of treason for his response to an investigation into whether Russia intervened in the election to help elect Trump.

The last time an American was charged with treason was in 1952 when Tomoya Kawakita , a dual Japanese and American citizen, was found guilty of tormenting American prisoners of war.

President Dwight Eisenhower decreased Kawakita’s punishment from death to life in prison.

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