HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

March 12, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Journalistic Wisdom

Political columnist and frequent talk-show participant Joe Klein has, out of his vast observation and off the top of his head, given us thirteen attributes of "left-wing extremists." Here they are:

  • believes the United States is a fundamentally negative force in the world.
  • believes that American imperialism is the primary cause of Islamic radicalism.
  • believes that the decision to go to war in Iraq was not an individual case of monumental stupidity, but a consequence of America's fundamental imperialistic nature.
  • tends to blame America for the failures of others-i.e. the failure of our NATO allies to fulfill their responsibilities in Afghanistan.
  • doesn't believe that capitalism, carefully regulated and progressively taxed, is the best liberal idea in human history.
  • believes American society is fundamentally unfair (as opposed to having unfair aspects that need improvement).
  • believes that eternal problems like crime and poverty are the primarily the fault of society.
  • believes that America isn't really a democracy.
  • believes that corporations are fundamentally evil.
  • believes in a corporate conspiracy that controls the world.
  • is intolerant of good ideas when they come from conservative sources.
  • dismissively mocks people of faith, especially those who are opposed to abortion and gay marriage.
  • regularly uses harsh, vulgar, intolerant language to attack moderates or conservatives.

It's an interesting list, but what's most interesting about it is not the specific items but the cast of mind that they collectively indicate. It's astoundingly simplistic. There's little possibility that a mind which thinks this way has much chance of getting at political reality. Maybe there are people who have such perfectly Manichaean ideas, but if there are, the term for them is not "extremist." Instead, it's "stupid."

As far as I know, Klein doesn't tell us whether he thinks there are many people this stupid, or not. But the implication is that he believes the number is considerable.

The problem is, his description of these beliefs is rife with unanswered questions. In the first case, what -- in Klein's usage -- does "fundamentally" mean? How much negativity does the term indicate the United States is projecting into the world? Does, for example, our using up about a quarter of the earth's energy production, thus creating far more than our share of atmospheric pollution, make us a little negative, somewhat negative, seriously negative, fundamentally negative, or not negative at all? And what label would Klein assign to each of these degrees of negativity?

Lists of this kind generate a good deal of heat, but no light whatsoever.


Where's the Money?

In the intensity of the media's scrutiny of conditions at Walter Reed Hospital one pertinent truth is being largely ignored. At the moment, the United States government hasn't committed the financial resources that will be required to give wounded soldiers the help everyone is now asserting that they deserve. It's all very well to declaim, as Chris Matthews does every night, that these men and women are patriots, not problems. But the sad truth is that they have become problems for the nation, and problems the nation has not begun to put its mind to solving.

I would like to see Matthews and other moralistic pundits begin to do a little arithmetic and tell us how much it will cost over the next ten years to give these men and women the care they need to attain the best recovery possible. You can do it in your head. At the least, tens of billions will be required. Where are all those dollars coming from? The unexamined presumption is that they will be borrowed and thus swell the already out of control national debt. And perhaps they will be. But specific appropriations will be needed to see that the borrowed money is spent on the patients. And not only that. Continuing oversight will be required to insure that the money is actually devoted to intelligent relief of the veterans' problems. What is it about our recent past that makes us think we have the ability to provide that oversight?

With the war now on the front pages, the human cost gets attention. But what about ten years from now, when a soldier who had his brain pulverized still needs ongoing therapy to have any sort of decent life? Who will provide the needed political pressure then, other than friends and family? Do we think we can rely on the agencies of government to do it? Or Congress? Or even the courts? If we do then we're fools.

The politicians, as they continually prescribe, will have moved on, and have other fish to fry, other headlines to use in the advancement of their careers. And the guy with the beat-up brain will be just a nuisance, somebody who will be seen by then as one more whiner. Thus will the nation deal with those we now say we will honor forever.

Some honor, when we can't even discuss right now how we will force the future to carry out our promises.


Impeachment

Yesterday was town meeting day in Vermont. Twenty-nine towns approved a resolution calling for the impeachment and removal from office of George Bush and Dick Cheney. In most cases the votes weren't close.

These are emotional times and it seems fairly clear that most people in Vermont think we now have a criminal president and vice president. And, if that's the case they deserve to be relieved of high office.

I, myself, don't think there's much doubt they deserve it. But that still leaves me with the question of whether the Congress should try to do it. And much as I dislike what the president and vice president have done to the country, I don't think it would be wise for Congress to get involved in impeachment proceedings now.

In the first place, we have to ask whether Bush and Cheney could be convicted of high crimes. And if we look at the makeup of the Congress honestly, I think we have to say conviction would be unlikely. But that practicality isn't the most important reason for not launching trials of the two officials.

Our government and, particularly, our Congress have better things to do than to tie the country in knots over impeachment. Their first duty now is to investigate what the executive branch has done since January 2001. That needs to be made clear to all the citizens of the country. And if the president were being tried by the Senate the investigations would languish. You might say an impeachment would be the biggest investigation imaginable. Certainly, there would be some emotional satisfaction in it. But over the long run, I doubt it would have the impact of report after report showing the duplicity and corruption that has taken place over the past six years. What we want -- or at least what we should want -- over the next two years is not legal punishment of the heads of government but rather unmistakable evidence that will make it unlikely for us, ever again, to have a president like Mr. Bush.

Besides, it will be a good thing if the president has to face these revelations, one after another, while he is still in the public light.

So, though I understand the desire for impeachment, I have to let my head rule my heart in this instance.


Confused?

Those of you who are having a hard time figuring out what Scooter Libby did and why it was bad enough to justify a federal prosecution should read R. Jeffrey Smith's article in today's Washington Post titled "Cheney's Suspected Role in Security Break Drove Fitzgerald."

According to Smith, Fitzgerald was primarily concerned with finding out what part the vice president played in revealing that Joseph Wilson's wife was a CIA agent. Fitzgerald suspected that Cheney was behind the whole operation to discredit Wilson, and that he may have broken the law to do it. But Scooter Libby's lying kept Fitzgerald from finding out what really happened. So that's why Fitzgerald went after Libby so fiercely.

Those of us who feel, as evidently the jury did also, that Scooter Libby was merely the fall guy for higher-ups probably need to temper our sympathy by remembering that Libby himself was one of the most avid neo-conservatives pushing an ill-advised invasion of Iraq. It may be the case that he's getting what he deserves, but not for the right reasons.

We are right to fear prosecutorial misconduct. It is one of the most serious problems facing the U.S. system of justice. And there may be good reason to suspect that Patrick Fitzgerald is not so pure as his advocates have made him out to be. Yet, in this case, he seems to have been justified in doing what he did, not because Scooter Libby did anything super horrendous, but because he was a minor participant in a cover-up that led the nation on a disastrous course.

Libby appears to have done what he did out of loyalty. And generally loyalty is a good thing.  But loyalty to Cheney can't be written off merely as a generous act. We have to take into account what the loyalty was being used for. That seems to be what Patrick Fitzgerald did.


Justice, Punishment, et cetera

Now that I've learned that some of the jurors in the Libby trial don't want the convicted man to be thrown in jail I may as well admit that neither do I. But readers should keep in mind that I don't want anybody to be put in jail unless it -- clearly and without much doubt -- would save someone else from being hurt. I am not enthralled by ideas of social punishment or of making examples of people. The latter is based on the notion that people will avoid doing bad things because they are afraid. But my observation tells me that fear causes more harm than it prevents. So, you see, I am not a good right-winger.

Already there is an active movement to see that Libby gets a pardon. It's the subject of a New York Times article today. But most people who want a pardon for Libby want it for reasons different from mine. They argue that he did nothing wrong and a pardon would be a statement of that truth. That a pardon would say exactly the opposite doesn't matter to them. And it's for sure they aren't pushing a pardon to argue against punishment. That would require them to change their identities. They are not in the mercy business.

Mercy, for me, would be the main purpose of the pardon, but it would also carry with it certain practicalities which aren't inconsiderable. If Mr. Bush were to pardon Libby right away, a great hue and cry of indignation would go up from Democrats. It would be a grand exercise in hypocrisy, but sometimes hypocrisy has its uses. In this case it would keep the story alive, a story that needs to be told in all its detail about how tens of thousands of lives were taken to gratify the egotism and arrogance of a few men. It may well be the biggest story of the past fifty years. We'll have to let the future decide about that. But if I had to vote right now I would place it near the top.

As for Mr. Libby, this incident need not ruin his life, whether or not he has to spend some time in jail. That will be up to him, and ruination will result only if he grasps at a tawdry notion of success. I suppose it would be too much for him to rethink his own actions. But, in any case, he has the option from now on to lead an honorable life and that's what I hope he will be able to do.


Fired Prosecutors

Guess what? Attorney General Alberto Gonzales never fired a U.S. attorney for political reasons. All who believe that probably believe also that the Constitution should be set aside to allow George Bush to become dictator for life.

The ways in which the Bush administration has used the all the divisions of the federal government to push and support its political dominance could not be uncovered if we conducted investigations non-stop for the next fifty years. But I hope that at least investigations into the firing of the eight officials who were axed last fall will go forward vigorously. There are two main reasons they are needed

The actions of the Justice Department are supposed to be even-handed. If your political allegiance makes you more likely to be investigated and indicted, then the idea of justice has become a travesty. Yet, that seems to be what has happened over the past six years. Out of 375 elected officials investigated by the Justice Department since Bush took office, 298 of them have been Democrats. This is according to professors Donald Shields and John Cragan, and reported by Paul Krugman in today's New York Times. I hope the Senate Judiciary Committee will take a look at these findings, and if they are accurate make sure the entire nation learns of them.

The other reason is Alberto Gonzales himself. Over the course of our history we have had many public officials who have betrayed their offices and disgraced themselves. But in my opinion, none has been worse in those respects than Mr. Gonzales. He conducts himself like a puppy dog who will do anything his master says, anything, no matter what it is. It would be a healthy development, if after Gonzales leaves office, every succeeding attorney general would have a framed warning posted across from his desk: "Don't be an Alberto Gonzales!"

Abuses like the ones that appear to have gone on in the Justice Department may not be as dramatic as manipulative schemes to take the nation to war. But over the long run they can undermine the integrity of the government as radically as any crazed foreign policy adventure.


The Innocence of Cops

The inspector general of the Justice Department reports that the FBI has widely abused its power to look into personal and business information without getting authorization from a court (I wonder how that got past Alberto Gonzales). On TV, I heard a FBI official say that inspecting these records is essential to thwarting bad people.

Cops always think they're working against bad people. It appears inconceivable to them that they, themselves, might be the bad people. This is a form of radical innocence, and it seems to run throughout all law enforcement agencies. Maybe there's psychological testing to insure that if you're going to become a cop you have to be innocent in that way.

Sensible people know there are two reasons to fear something or somebody. One is intention and the other is power. Obviously, if somebody intends to hurt you, you're in danger. But even in the absence of hostile or unjustified intentions, power is dangerous. And cops have a lot of power. That's why careful rules about their behavior need to be scrupulously enforced. It is precisely when they think they're doing the best things that they're most likely to run amok. For some reason, a goodly portion of the American public, including a majority of all the cops, have a hard time grasping that truth.

Almost all of us say we understand the corrupting influence of power. But most of the time, we don't act like we do. If the cops beat up some guy, most people think he had it coming. They don't stop to think the cops may have been drunk with their own power and did it just because they could and because it made them feel manly.

Naiveté about the threat of power is the most serious political issue facing us in this country. The central fact about the president of the United States, for example, is not that he has good intentions but rather that he has tremendous power. I happen to think he has more than he needs to do his job. But he, like the cops, will keep on trying to get as much as he can. That's the nature of power seeking and power use.

So if you think we don't need to worry about the power of the FBI because they're good guys, then you're even more innocent than they are. And that's riding innocence to the bottom of depravity.


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