Here’s a heartwarming story about some of the insanity that followed in the wake of 9/11. We see this kind of thing all the time, in the news, on tv shows, in movies. A mistake compounded into tragedy by the utter fear and panic induced under extreme conditions. One could almost forgive the FBI for this given the circumstances, but the follow-up beggars understanding.
It’s not like this is rare. In Myanmar, comedians get jailed for cracking wise about the government (I believe stand-up comedy is illegal there period). In Cuba, it is fine to criticize the United States all you want, but if you point out that your own government (Castro’s) doesn’t exactly deliver what anyone might call freedom, you end up in jail or dead. Threats to national security the world over are never treated as anything less than the active presence of the devil or Darth Vader. (Of course, in most cases Darth Vader is the one in charge, so…)
We, however, have no excuse. Now, the courts did let this man go. But then they sought to eradicate the public statements of what really happened. The coercion was seen as something we must not admit happened.
So what’s worse? Embarrassment or a violation of individual rights? Because that is what all this has in common. Governments seeking at all costs to avoid being embarrassed.
You might think that this should be a no-brainer. If you want not to be embarrassed, don’t do anything embarrassing–i.e. don’t do anything stupid. But governing is a large, complex, messy endeavor, and those who govern, after all, are humans (usually) who are prone to all the failures of our organism. Things that look like a “good idea at the time” can turn out very much badly.
And the truth is, we still depend on Face in international relations. This is silly as well, but unfortunately very true. The appearance of a dignified, competent national government carries weight in negotiations. It also carries weight with the people being represented. After all, who wants to grant power to a buffoon?
I think, however, this part of the Emperor’s wardrobe. Nations tacitly accept that they must avoid embarrassment on the home front in order to be credible to the rest of the world, but is there any validity to the presumption? Between individuals, the ability to admit mistakes and laugh at oneself is seen—usually—as a virtue. Somehow, once we go up the ladder into the realms of government, that virtue becomes intolerable.
So the FBI gets the wrong address, busts in on a family in its bed, makes a mess of the home, and finds out later that this really wasn’t a safe house for drug dealers/terrorists/counterfeiters/kidnappers/what have you. Would it destroy them to say “We’re sorry” and perhaps offer some compensation for the inconvenience? Instead they adamantly behave as it a trick had been played on them and that the FBI is the victim.
This is supposed to be a democracy. This is supposed to be where the government works for Us. When someone I hire screws up a job, I do not apologize to them or tolerate the suggestion that it was my fault they did it wrong. In fact, while I might be inclined to overlook the mistake in the first instance, such arrogance would get them summarily fired.
It might do for all of us–right or left, it doesn’t matter–to bear in mind one simple fact about our leaders.
They are employees.
The president of the United States is indeed the most powerful single national leader on the planet. He (perhaps soon she) wields power and authority unlike no king in history. The burden and complexity of the office are crushing and we have seen men go in fairly vigorous and come out white-haired and, sometimes, broken (Johnson comes to mind; the job arguably killed Roosevelt and both Wilson and Eisenhower were damaged in office); those who gain the office deserve respect and perhaps a little admiration. But at the end of the day, they are not My Country—they are an employee.
And if that’s the case for the president, it is even more so for everyone else down the chain.
So if a government official does something stupid, well, let’s see about making sure that doesn’t happen again. If, however, they then proceed to act as if I have no right to bring them up short for their mistakes, then it’s time to fire them.
Because all too often the consequences of trying to squelch the public exposure of an embarrassment are far worse than the initial mistake. After all, this isn’t Myanmar.