Michael Branch thinks deeply about the tradition:
[T]he National Turkey … doesn’t require our mercy in the slightest. It is we who need the bird, desperately so, for through it we are permitted to express our deep human desire to grant amnesty to those who would otherwise suffer. From where I sit it is difficult to determine whether the granting of a pardon constitutes an assertion of power or a relinquishment of it.
Justin E.H. Smith also assesses the annual practice:
Obama’s pardoning of one randomly selected bird at Thanksgiving not only carries with it an implicit validation of the slaughtering of millions of other turkeys. It also involves an implicit validation of the parallel practice for human beings, in which the occasional death-row inmate is pardoned, or given a stay by the hidden reasoning of an increasingly capricious Supreme Court, even as the majority of condemned prisoners are not so lucky. In this respect, the Thanksgiving pardon is an acknowledgment of the arbitrariness of the system of capital punishment.
Sandy Levinson reviews Obama's (not very good) record of pardoning people.
(Photo: A turkey stands in a barn at the Willie Bird Turkey Farm November 22, 2010 in Sonoma, California. By Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)