Scofflaw Champion of the World

December 17, 1992

"It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game," goes the threadbare cliche that virtually everyone learns as a child -- everyone, that is, except chess master Bobby Fischer.

Mr. Fischer has been indicted by a federal grand jury on a single count of violating President Bush's executive order banning U.S. citizens from engaging in commercial relations with the former Yugoslavia. The reclusive American grandmaster flouted the order in September to play a $3 million exhibition match there against Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky, whom Mr. Fischer defeated in the 1972 world championships.

Some will be inclined to dismiss Mr. Fischer's transgression as the relatively harmless expression of a mercurial -- though anti-social and anti-Semitic -- genius. But given the monstrous crimes against Muslims and other ethnic groups perpetrated by the Serbian authorities who organized the match, U.S. economic sanctions were a powerful symbol of American repugnance. If the American government fails to enforce its own sanctions against a chess player, how can it then expect arms dealers and other profiteers to be deterred?

Nor did Mr. Fischer help matters by the contemptuous manner in which he expressed his intention to ignore a Treasury Department letter ordering him not to play and warning of possible prosecution -- a letter written in response to inquiries by his own lawyers. At a press conference, Mr. Fischer held up the document and spit on it as a gesture of defiance. So he knew the risks.

Mr. Fischer's case has been compared to that of another erratic genius, the American expatriate poet Ezra Pound, who made propaganda broadcasts on behalf of Italy's Fascist government during World War II. Pound was captured and tried for treason after the war, but was declared insane and confined to a mental institution.

Mr. Fischer's behavior suggests not that he is mentally unbalanced but rather that he simply takes a morbid delight in tweaking his nose at civilized sensibililties. But the government has the means to discipline such people and it should not hesitate to employ them in bringing incorrigible scofflaws like Mr. Fischer to heel.

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