Sunday, April 22, 2012

Too Big to Punish

The concept of ethical standards of behavior for either corporate officers or government officials has become something of a joke in this bright, new century. Politicians seem utterly uneducated when it comes to discriminating between right and wrong, the media morally dead, voters hopelessly confused, the powerful cynical and smirking all the way to the bank. Petty offenders feel the full force of the law, but the serious criminals who buy elections, impoverish millions, and provoke wars that undermine society and governance are “too big to punish.” Are ethics and morality really too complicated to think about in our busy modern world? Not really—the answer is staring us in the face.

We are all held up to standards of behavior. Drivers must drive on the right, at least in the U.S. This illustrates an arbitrary but quite valuable standard; head-on collisions are inconvenient. Other standards are less arbitrary yet bizarrely more controversial and far more studiously avoided. Minor bureaucrats are sternly warned to avoid “even the appearance” of conflict of interest while national leaders pursue self-enriching conflicts with few qualms and almost no risk of punishment. Still, at least in some countries, ordering the murder of a political opponent is deemed beyond the pale. Even for the most powerful officials in major democracies, then, at least some standards exist. The question, for those who care about the quality of governance, is how far to carry these standards, how high the standards should be, and how rigorously the most powerful officials should be held to these standards.

No Empire Is Too Big to Fail; No Leader Too Big to Punish
Lawyers can and will debate the details endlessly. More important and most glaringly absent in contemporary American public consciousness is the principle underlying the debate over standards. Why should, for example, a President not be allowed to lie to the people about his reasons for launching a war? Why, for example, should drones not be sent to kill untried individuals who are “suspected” of being either military or civilian adversaries? Why, even if drone attacks are judged appropriate, should the President or some unknown official buried in the bureaucracy of the CIA or the Pentagon not be allowed to make the decision to kill such adversaries in cold blood without a formal judicial finding? Why should a bank official be allowed to evade personal responsibility for “losing” someone’s mortgage papers and then stealing back the house of a homeowner who was faithfully paying his or her mortgage? Why should a corporation that poisons a nation's prime fishing grounds continue to exist, and why should its officials not contribute every penny of their ill-earned millions in compensation? Where lies any justification for allowing those who commit the most grievous sins against society to evade responsibility simply because they disenfranchised, impoverished, poisoned, or slaughtered an uncounted number of unknown people rather than a single specific individual?

Are these just tedious hair-splitting issues for lawyers to argue behind closed doors, carefully protected from the prying eyes of the foreigners being bombed or the Americans whose mortgages have been stolen? Well, no, they are not; they are, in fact, rather clear-cut examples of a society that has lost its path to the degree that it can no longer recall its own values. These issues rest solidly on a simple principle that has been clearly stated for all to see more than once in our nation’s history. Abraham Lincoln did not “invent” this principle, but he may have stated it best half way through the war “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

That is the essence of “American values,” not slavery (on cotton farms or in Chinese factories), not genocide (of Native Americans or Palestinians), not the propping up of thuggish regimes that host our naval bases, not the protection of corporations that poison our commons, not neo-conservative wars of choice, not neo-liberal economic oppression. By what mental slight-of-hand did "national interest" come to mean the opposite of "the people's welfare?"


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