Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A Dangerous Precedent

Punishing Christie Todd Whitman for her misleading statements about air quality after the collapse of the WTC could make other functionaries think twice before misleading the public.

You may be thinking that this would be an excellent reason to throw the book at her, even if her lies hadn't blighted so many people's lives.

If so, you fail to understand the intricacies of statecraft:

Holding Christine Todd Whitman liable will set a dangerous precedent, leaving public officials to worry that their words to reassure the public after disasters will open them up to personal liability, Justice Department attorney Alisa Klein told the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
There's enough material here for a dozen posts, but I'll restrict myself to a couple of points. First, I'm not likely to be reassured by people I don't trust. But if I were, it'd probably be because I felt that there was some chance, however small, that they'd be held accountable if they lied to me. That was a rather forlorn hope even before 2000, God knows, but the solution is surely not to treat the anodyne gibberish of party hacks as a balm for which we should be grateful.

Second, if I'd lived in lower Manhattan on 9/11 (instead of the Bronx), I would've found it much more reassuring if Whitman had said, "It's not safe for you to go home." It would've agreed with the evidence directly before my eyes, for one thing, and it also would've given me the feeling that marginally competent people were in charge.

Last, I've never seen much evidence that this government worries at all about frightening people. They've tried to frighten us with anthrax-laden balsa-wood drones drifting across the Atlantic, and a radical homosexual attack on traditional marriage, and ticking time-bombs from which only torture can save us. Worse, they expect us to be more frightened of these threats than the horrific behavior they were invented to justify (e.g., pre-emptive war, institutionalized bigotry, and outright barbarism).

And of course, they've consistently tried to frighten us with the consequences of holding them responsible for their own actions:
"If you speak, you will be potentially held liable," [Klein] said. "Then the clear message for government officials is to say nothing."
I didn't think that any false dichotomy could be venal or insane enough to shock me at this point, but this one does the trick: Officials must be able to say whatever they think will "help" during a national disaster, without any fear of being held responsible, or they'll be forced to preside mutely over the carnage like a funerary statue.

All things considered, I think I'm willing to take the risk.

(Photo: Ruins of Dresden, 1945.)


Anonymous said...

The simple fact is Republicans hate personal responsibility. They want pardons for criminal telcos, they want Scooter Libby to walk, they want "tort reform" to ensure that people that harm you can't be held responsible, they want helicopter Ben to bail out bad bankers, and now this.

Is there anything they'll take responsibility for?

olvlzl said...

Notice the presumption of the public being children who benefit from being lied to. This is among the more pernicious assumptions of our oligarchs, that The People are too immature to learn the truth, perhaps they're afraid that it will make us free.

I'm more convinced every day that for a government official, lying to the public should be a felony. People who believe something that is not true cannot make the necessary decisions on that issue in order to maintain their essential role in democracy. Lying by public officials is the beginning of despotism. Christie Todd Whitman is guilty of crimes against democracy in order for the Bush regime to maintain a semblance of order at the cost of many peoples' health and almost certainly many peoples' lives. When you think of it, it's sort of ironic that she was assisting the suicide bombers in killing more Americans. Yes, I really do mean it because that's exactly what the reality of the situation is no matter how nicely she appears on the morning talk shows.

Phila said...

I'm more convinced every day that for a government official, lying to the public should be a felony.

I think the death penalty is much more appropriate for someone like Whitman than for some guy who shoots up a convenience store.

As it happens, I don't support the death penalty...not even in a case like this. But life imprisonment seems like a perfectly acceptable punishment for betrayal of the public trust on that scale.