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FROM THE EDITOR: Just when we thought inquisitions were a thing of the past

On Friday, August 24, the so-called “U.S. Anti-Doping Agency” unilaterally decided that American bicyclist Lance Armstrong had used an illegal procedure called “blood doping” to help him win his seven Tour de France wins – even though this most investigated of bicycle racers had faced such charges, based apparently on his ability to win this grueling race repeatedly, and had never been found to be guilty of using any illegal procedures to help him win.

In this case, Armstrong had reportedly told the agency “enough is enough”, and that he would stop his attempts to prove to the agency that he had not used the procedure, while continuing to deny that he had ever used any performance-enhancing drugs or techniques.

In other words, he was tired of continually submitting to tests and fighting charges when they had yet ever to be supported by hard evidence.

For that, and only that, this American agency announced it was now going to strip Armstrong of his seven Tour de France wins, and ban him from the sport for life. This obscure American agency thus accomplished what no foreign government and no competing bicyclist had accomplished – keeping Armstrong from winning in a Tour de France in which he emerged with the title. And it did so without following any procedure about establishing guilt or innocence found in the United States Constitution.

Bill Stapleton, identified as Armstrong’s longtime agent, responded to this action by saying that his client’s decision to stop responding to these repeated suspicions and charges by this agency by saying, “This is not an admission of guilt; this is a rebuke of a process that is disgusting and unfair. We believe they are completely out of bounds.”

As the Reuters News Agency observed, in reporting this dismaying turn of events, “While the USADA can remove Armstrong’s titles, such a decision could ultimately rest with the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, should the International Cycling Union challenge the USDAA’s ruling.” Which, of course, it should.

We are not attentive followers of sport, on bicycles or otherwise, but we are familiar with Lance Armstrong: Of his remarkable and successful battle with cancer while continuing his championship bicycling career, and of his repeated submission to testing to prove (successfully, so far) that he had not cheated in some way to achieve his celebrated titles. Our response to this latest turn of events is that it is not really about sports. It’s about rights.

And there is something unpleasantly familiar about what has happened here. It struck us immediately, yet to our surprise in the weeks since this happened, we have not found elsewhere in the press an observation about what that is.

Let’s see, now. A small piece of the federal government, somewhat obscure and perhaps seeking to become more prominent, shows hubris and self-righteousness in trying to root out evils of one sort or another – without feeling required to prove charges and allegations through due process and legal evidence.

To persons of a certain age, that really should sound a bit familiar. The words “House UnAmerican Activities Committee” come to mind – as well as does the name of a Senator from Wisconsin named Joe McCarthy. “McCarthyism”. Ring any bells?

In the 1600’s, Salem, Massachusetts, held inquisitions in which it sought to identify and penalize “witches”. At least 32 people died before it was over, many by hanging; the episode was marked by “false accusations and lapses in due process”. The only alleged witches spared were those who admitted to being witches. That was a terrible time.

In the early 1950’s, in a later witch-hunt, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy held congressional hearings seeking to identify, vilify, and punish, those who might be considered communists. Of those accused by the committee, it’s estimated perhaps as many as 6% might really have BEEN communists – although many of those later did not appear to have been engaged in espionage or sedition, having simply been sympathetic to the philosophy at that time.

By subtraction, then, at least 94% of those accused by the committee were NOT communists, although their careers may have been ruined by the allegations made in this inquisition. One of seven Senators in McCarthy’s own party who very early – in 1950 – arose to censure him was Oregon’s own Wayne Morse; another was female – Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. McCarthy referred to this group, at the time, as “Snow White and the six dwarfs”.

In a 1954 television documentary about McCarthy, the late newsman Edward R. Murrow concluded, “We must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.” We would echo that thought in Armstrong’s case.

Eventually, Senator McCarthy lost public sympathy, as it became evident that his charges amounted to unsubstantiated demagoguery, and that his investigation had done far more harm than good.

And we kind of thought we now were past that sort of thing.

Apparently not. Sorry, Lance.