We don’t use the word “condign” very often these days.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, it means “worthy” or “suitable,” but since the end of the 17th century, it’s been used almost exclusively in conjunction with the word “punishment,” to indicate a penalty that properly suits the crime.

This obscure word occurred to me when I considered Scooter Libby’s sentence to 30 months in prison, which is longer than Mary Winkler will serve for killing her husband. And much longer than Paris Hilton will serve for threatening fellow citizens with death and bodily harm by her irresponsible driving.

In fact, some have argued that Libby’s sentence is much too severe for lying about what they contend was a relatively unimportant matter, the exposure of covert C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame for political purposes. I don’t actually follow that line of reasoning since I find it hard to imagine the rationale that justifies exposure of a covert agent’s identity for any reason.

Valerie Plame may not have been exactly James Bond, but it appears that she served our country valuably and with some sacrifice for a number of years in several undercover capacities. The importance of her undercover identity is still being debated, but clandestine work, by definition, implies that outsiders, even at the White House, are unable to evaluate fully the repercussions of exposure.

It wasn’t their decision to make.

But the nature of the crime, or non-crime, if you like, is much less important than the obligation to tell the truth under oath, which should be close to sacrosanct to Americans who understand the contrast between our ways of effecting justice and those that have been used elsewhere in the past and are still used in many countries today.

In our country we’re generally not required to say anything. We have a constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination. We have a right to decline to testify without a lawyer present. Information used against us has to be obtained in a lawful manner.

A wife isn’t obligated to testify against her husband. Testimony cannot be extracted by means of torture (well, maybe we’re fudging a little on this one).

In exchange for these excellent rights, Americans take on an obligation to be truthful before grand juries and judges, regardless of their estimation of the seriousness or relevance of the issue in question. And that obligation is embodied in law.

The Libby indictment is available online; his contempt and lack of regard for the FBI investigators and the grand jury, as well as for the truth, are obvious. The jury that convicted Libby had no trouble determining that he clearly and unequivocally violated the law. Using federal sentencing guidelines, the judge sentenced him to a term in prison that’s consistent with what you or I would receive for lying to a grand jury.

In short, his sentence was, well, condign.

Libby’s apologists and his defense attorneys have argued that he should be shown leniency because of his long record of public service.

Perhaps, but it’s worth remembering that Libby was knee-deep in the neo-conservative arrogance and ambition that expressed itself in the Project for the New American Century and, eventually, in the Iraq disaster. An appeal for leniency based on Libby’s service to our country is undermined by his questionable role near the center of a blundering misuse of power, as well as his contempt for the processes of law.

In any case, Libby isn’t the kind of man that we expect to wind up in prison. He holds the one Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card that, in our country, is better than being white or rich: He has connections to real political power.

A presidential pardon is entirely possible. George Bush values and rewards loyalty, and Libby’s loyalty has never been in question.

But if conservative Republicans are inclined to go easy on Libby for what was, after all, a fairly serious crime, maybe they’ll consider a lighter touch with another set of lawbreakers, 12 million illegal immigrants who live and work in our country.

True, they are criminals, but their crimes are victimless, their motivations are better than Libby’s and, in most respects, they’ve done a better job of serving our country.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.)

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