Thursday, May 26, 2005

Taking Responsibility

It’s been more than a month since my last confession. You can see that I feel a bit like a lapsed blogger. My keyboard has been busy but with other things. Much has gone on since my retreat to Chapel Hill, but sadly the basics haven’t changed all that much. The truce proclaimed in the Senate notwithstanding, we’re still yelling at each other and, despite the much touted exercise of democracy in Iraq, more blood than ever is still flowing. Both make me terribly sad, trouble me, a feeling you probably share. Any way, I’ve let us both off the hook so this will be a long one.

Tom Friedman with whom I don’t always agree (and why should one always agree) made a provocative suggestion in his Times column this morning. He thinks the government would do well to simply shut down operations at Guantanamo because it has become a symbol of everything that is bad about America not merely in the Arab world but among our allies around in Europe and around the globe. His heart is in the right place, but I think his solution is off the mark. Speaking of us “ugly” Americans (but of a lot of 21st Century folks in other places as well) one of our generation's least attractive attributes is an apparent constitutional inability to take responsibility for anything, large and small. We behave like a society of little kids averting our eyes when mom accuses us of invading the cookie jar or breaking that precious piece of glass that’s been in the family for generations. Simply shutting and then tearing Gitmo down would amount to still another cover-up. When you have a failing futureless business on your hands or have made an ill conceived investment, being told to let it go and move on can be the best advice. But what’s happened in Cuba, in Afghanistan and at Abu Ghraib is not some kind of financial blunder but a moral misdeed of enormous proportion that reflects on the very core of the democracy that we all hold so dear and that some of us seem intent on sharing with the world (God help them if this is the kind of democracy they are promoting).

In the normal course of events when people of responsibility do bad things, even when there is suspicion or perception of misdeed, they go. Great leaders take responsibility for things done under their watch. With today’s complexities and the myriad of free agents whom we call Federal employees perhaps Truman’s oft quoted (and rarely observed) dictum about buck stopping is too much to ask of any mortal, however empowered by God he and his people may be. But the very idea of passing the buck, not taking responsibility, is what’s poisoning the precious tree of our America. We can’t move on from these places with another grand stand PR act, we have to fess up to what happened there and then, just the opposite of a close down install real reforms including aggressive transparency. There are times when people should be imprisoned, but we all need to know who and why. How they serve out their incarceration, how they are treated by those in authority shouldn’t be a mystery but open to independent inspection. Our nation's prisons are filled with thousands of men and women. Perhaps you and I don’t know how and why each individual came to this place, and most assuredly some among them also don’t belong behind bars. But there is a public record, we could find out if we made the effort. There was a trial and certainly representation of counsel. That isn’t true for Gitmo and the others. Not merely is there no transparency, things are so opaque that we are asked to believe that even on site commanders don’t know what’s going on – more cookie jars and broken glass. If this stuff had happened on one day in one place or even on two days in that one place, I could buy that fairy tale. But after the 9/11 Commission we’ve all been taught about connecting dots and the striking similarities of goings on in all those prisons belies any attempt to portray them as anything but a systematic way of doing things ­ a following of orders, however wink of the eye they may have been.

Last night The A&E Channel presented a very moving two hour documentary, Bearing Witness, about five journalists, all women, working in Iraq. They were each young enough to have been born after or in the last years of Viet Nam, long after our second war to end all wars. What was striking about these women was that they all were journalistic veterans of multiple conflicts; one having lost an eye to shrapnel in Sri Lanka. The other thing was that they were all real journalists, not the plastic readers that we see on both networks and cable who pretend to be. Seeing them in that light alone was heartening because they are clearly not the only serious and courageous professionals (in the Murrow tradition) out there on the streets where things are really happening. One of these women was an “old” Iraq hand and had in fact been imprisoned in Abu Ghraib under the former regime. Needless to say, it was a frightening experience, especially in a place of such a terrible reputation. Fortunately, being a journalist, she was released after a relatively short stay. But what she said about the place, not then but now, is that if anything the treatment administered by our princes of light, protectors of the “culture of life”, are far worse than they had been during her incarceration. To be sure her experience was limited, but the fact that she could even come to such a conclusion speaks volumes, even if only about perceptions.

We are never going to get past what has been done by our people in our name and, without question, as a fostered, not merely condoned, way of doing things until people very high up either take responsibility or have it forced upon them. If it is true, as he claims to be the case, that Donald Rumsfeld offered to resign after the horrors of Abu Ghraib were both uncovered and confirmed, then one has to fault George Bush for not accepting his resignation. Not merely would doing so have sent a clear message, but as Bill Clinton liked to say “it was the right thing to do.” The fact that he didn’t, puts the matter squarely on his desk, the one placed

in the room where Truman sat. He must take responsibility for not acting when he should have or is it that he, the loyalist that he is, could not let his Donald take the fall for a policy that he, with help of the now Attorney General, had set into motion?

I’m not na├»ve enough to think the George Bush is about to hand the reigns of government to Dennis Hastert (if Bush is guilty is it credible that Chaney is not). Nor do I think this particular issue is, or should be left or right, red or blue, for the war or against it. This issue transcends all that. It is one of basic morality, of values. Yes Matilda, forget what you've heard from the propaganda machine, liberals like me have and care very much about values, and big surprise so do many of those godless secularists. We’re in this American boat together, the one in which we collectively came to found a better place, where people should take responsibility for what they do, and then do something about the responsibility that they have taken.