Jack Abramoff, having been told by the prosecutors that if he didn’t make a deal with them he could wind up spending the next thirty years in prison, agreed to make a deal.
Paragraph One of the plea agreement states that “The defendant is entering into this agreement and is pleading guilty freely and voluntarily … without threats, force, intimidation, or coercion of any kind.”
Yes, I know that’s just the boilerplate, but I find the false recitation obnoxious, especially the crashingly false “of any kind” thrown in as an afterthought. The agreement is indeed free, voluntary, and uncoerced in the sense that Abramoff faced no extra-legal force or threats. But to deny that being told you might die behind bars if you refuse to talk constitutes “threat” and “intimidation” is to stretch the language completely out of shape.
An act can be voluntary even if made under pressure: that is, I can freely choose to accept a lesser evil rather than a greater, as when the surgeon tells me he needs to amputate my leg to save my life. But when someone says he will damage me unless I do what he wants me to do, that’s a coercive threat, and the fact that he is legally entitled to damage me because of my own past bad acts doesn’t change that fact.
Laws need to be enforced, and enforcing laws means ruining the lives of lawbreakers. That’s just as true of bribery as it is of mugging. But the fact that it’s necessary doesn’t mean that it isn’t ugly. Concealing that ugliness from ourselves with grossly dishonest language serves us ill.