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THE EXAMINED LIFE

The pardoner's tale

LAST MONDAY, AT the 56th National Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon ceremony, President Bush granted a new lease on life to Stars, a gobbler from Carthage, Mo. After a turkey roast of sorts, during which he got off a few one-liners at Stars's expense, Bush turned solemn: "Even in times of hardship,'' he told the assembled schoolchildren, "we see all around us gifts to be thankful for - our families and friends, the beautiful land we call home, and the freedom granted to us all.''

But Swedish anthropologist Magnus Fiskesjo finds nothing charming about our pre-Thanksgiving tradition. Making jokes about a bird during a "symbolic, public pardon where death is the explicit alternative,'' he told Ideas, is "a strange way to celebrate one's freedom.'' In a new pamphlet, "The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon, the Death of Teddy's Bear, and the Sovereign Exception of Guantanamo'' (Prickly Paradigm Press), Fiskesjo argues that the true significance of the annual rite is a demonstration of the president's power of "sovereign exception.''

"Power and pardon are very closely related,'' according to Fiskesjo, who calls the Thanksgiving turkey pardon a ritual performance "as exotic as any piece of strange ethnographica out of Africa or the Amazon jungle.'' He compares it to other pardoning gestures, from an ancient Chinese king's decision to spare a sacrificial ox to Teddy Roosevelt's famous refusal to shoot a captured bear. These acts of mercy, he argues, serve to establish a leader's undemocratic power to decide when and where "normality and legality are suspended - whether for birds or bears or for human beings.''

Fiskesjo compares the turkey's situation to that of the 660 alleged Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters detained at Guantanamo Bay, whose fate is also dependent on the president's wishes. The Bush administration has asserted they are neither prisoners-of-war entitled to due process under the Geneva Conventions nor accused criminals with legal rights. Fiskesjo isn't the only one talking turkey: Earlier this month, the Supreme Court decided to review federal courts' rulings about the official status of the so-called "unlawful combatants.''

President Bush pets Stars, the 2003 National Thanksgiving Turkey, in the Rose Garden President Bush pets Stars, the 2003 National Thanksgiving Turkey, in the Rose Garden (Krt Photo / George Bridges)
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