Your Government Lied to You. So What?

The Bill of Rights

Ron Suskind’s new book, The Way of the World, contains a number of revelations concerning the activities of the George W. Bush Administration during the months preceding the Iraq War. According to Suskind’s sources, when Bush was confronted with intelligence reports that did not support the projected war with Iraq he quipped, “Why don’t they [the CIA] give us something we can use?” This petulant remark was followed by a concerted effort to fabricate the evidence. Members of the Bush Administration-Vice President Cheney seems the most clearly implicated-led an effort to forge documents alleging Iraq’s possession of WMDs. If that wasn’t enough, these documents were attributed to a source who was actually saying exactly the opposite. It is hard to imagine a clearer breach of the public trust by governmental officials. The severity of this overt deception is compounded by the numerous atrocities that have followed in its wake. And yet, no one really cares. President Bush will finish his term unabated, after which time he’ll probably go back to his old career of running businesses funded by Saudi oil money-running them into the ground, that is. He’ll make for some amusing stories in the tabloids. Maybe he’ll even get his own reality TV show. In any event, he’ll never have to account for his actions in a court of law.  

The lack of public outrage over this new confirmation of the Bush Administration’s mendacity is not a great surprise. Suskind’s account does not really change our understanding of any of the facts regarding how the country was led into war; it only gives us a clearer picture of the complicity of members of the Administration (including Bush himself) with respect to those facts. We have known for over four years now, that the central justification for the Iraq War was incontrovertibly false. They said we had to go to war because Iraq might have WMDs. We went to war. We now know Iraq didn’t have WMDs. Mission accomplished. Not even the Administration’s chief apologists now deny that the intelligence leading to war was faulty. If everyone-regardless of political or ideological affiliation-recognizes that the intelligence which led to war was faulty, then why haven’t those responsible for the decision to go to war faced legal consequences? Indeed, as we look at the political landscape on the eve of the 2008 elections, those responsible for the Iraq War will likely never be held legally accountable for their actions. If impeachment proceedings could be started against President Clinton for a blowjob, then why not against President Bush for an unnecessary war?

It is not enough for us merely to remind ourselves of the grave results of Bush’s unpunished crimes and misdemeanors: e.g., over 4000 dead Americans, over 500,000 dead Iraqis,1  millions of Iraqi refugees, the emboldening of extremists within Iran, the decline of the U.S.A.’s standing in the world community, the collapse of the U.S. economy, etc. The more pressing task at hand is to examine-in as dispassionate, apolitical, and clinical a matter as possible-just why it is that Bush’s crimes will almost certainly go unpunished. Understanding why we won’t prosecute the Bush Administration for the Iraq War just might help us to diagnose the functional disorders within the body politic as a whole. We need to regard our inability to hold Bush legally accountable as a matter of public health.

The first major barrier to prosecution of the Bush Administration is a simple but remarkably effective one: ignorance. War apologists now claim that while they may have been wrong about Iraq’s possession of WMDs, they were wrong in good faith. Intelligence is an imperfect science. We used the best information we had. We got it wrong. Sorry. Now, it is certainly refreshing any time political ideologues admit that they were wrong about anything. Indeed, this admission indicates that reality still has a small role in mainstream political debate. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that the admission of ignorance is being used in order to avoid responsibility.     Why is the claim to ignorance a plausible excuse for legal and political responsibility?

In order to answer this question, we should consider the role of the claim to ignorance in our moral and legal judgments more generally. We take it for granted that when we hold person X legally accountable for a given action, the physical evidence concerning how that action transpired ought to demonstrate that person X was the causal agent of the action in question. The claim to ignorance attempts to deny person X’s moral and/or legal responsibility for a given action without denying the evidence of his or her participation in that action. For this claim to be valid, person X’s lack of adequate information concerning the plausible alternatives and/or consequences of the action in question must be of such a constraining nature that, for all intents and purposes, person X was physically forced to commit the action in question.

The claim to ignorance is very difficult to refute on the basis of the scientific model of the universe. This worldview assumes that every action is caused by other prior actions. When a forest fire starts, we don’t assume that the fire caused itself. Rather, we investigate what might have ignited the fire, and if and when we find the source of ignition (e.g., a lightning strike, an arsonist, etc.), we accept that source as the fire’s causal agent. Why do we stop there? Isn’t it fundamentally arbitrary to say that either the lightning strike or the arsonist was responsible for the fire? Surely, other prior actions must have caused the lightning to strike or arsonist to set the fire. We identify the lightning strike or the arsonist as the fire’s causal agent, simply because finding the next anterior agent becomes exceedingly difficult. In other words, according to the scientific model of the universe, agency is always a matter of explanatory efficiency and nothing else.

Today, we all more or less accept this model of the universe-whether we know and admit it or not. The claim to ignorance relies upon the difficulty in scientifically identifying a single agent as the beginning of a causal chain. Aren’t we all fundamentally ignorant of the reasons why we do anything? What would it mean to make a truly informed decision? Could anyone but God ever really accomplish such a feat? When Bush, Vice President Cheney, Dr. Rice, et al. appeal to ignorance as an excuse for starting an unnecessary war, they are appealing to our inculturated sense of skepticism and fallibility with respect to the limits of knowledge.

At various points in our lives, each of us has made a decision that later turned out to be wrong. Modern science’s single greatest achievement made the fallibility of our personal experience applicable in an even more fundamental way to judgments and observations about the universe as a whole. Thus, when the Left criticizes Bush for his ignorance and stupidity, they are thereby placing his actions within a narrative that equates intuitively with the way we understand the world and our place in it. Not coincidentally, Bush and his fellow apologists themselves appeal to ignorance when explaining the decision to go to war. The more we accept Bush’s claim to ignorance, the less able we are to hold him accountable for the consequences of his actions.

If ignorance were the only thing that Bush could rely upon, however, he would likely have been impeached already. Even though we are likely to give the benefit of the doubt to people who claim to have acted out of ignorance, this benefit extends only so far. Therefore, we have the long-standing legal principle ignorantia juris non excusat (ignorance is no protection from the law). The success of a claim to ignorance depends entirely upon others perceiving the claimant to have acted in good faith. While no one blames an idiot, everyone hates a liar. Hence the moral outrage and legal proceedings directed at Nixon and Clinton.

For what other reason do we not prosecute Bush? I have already argued that part of the problem resides in our skepticism, which is emblematic of what is best in both our common sense and the scientific method. The other significant barrier to holding Bush legally accountable for his actions similarly arises from another great and rich cultural tradition: distrusting the government. The United States inherited this tradition from the philosophies and practices of modern liberalism as articulated by figures like John Locke and Adam Smith.

John Locke argued for limiting governmental powers on the basis of a strict distinction between public and private: the king can perhaps tell a man what he ought to do when that man is out in the world, but no one should tell him what he can or cannot do when he is in his own home. The male pronoun is instructive in this case, as Locke was effectively transposing the classical figure of the pater familias, resulting in the birth of a peculiarly modern entity: homo economicus. Adam Smith made the economic significance of Locke’s notion of private liberty more explicit, showing that the concepts of property and liberty are fundamentally intertwined. Smith argued that even the public good (i.e., what is best for all) is most effectively and efficiently pursued only when private interests are left unchecked by any external influences whatsoever (most especially, that of the government). The liberals defined private liberty as existing only to the extent that the government did not interfere with it. This in turn required that private liberty could only be protected if and when private individuals came together collectively in order to limit the exercise of governmental power upon their lives. As such, from the liberal viewpoint, the ability to do what one wants in one’s private life depends entirely upon the public and cooperative practice of constantly and diligently surveiling and criticizing everything that the government does. The active public manifestation of the distrust of government is the basis for all other private liberties. The U.S. Founders, being good liberals, naturally placed the “First Amendment” first in the Bill of Rights.

What do I take to be the pernicious consequences of this tradition? For the time being, I will leave aside the issues concerning the conflation of human dignity with economic property. I would like to focus upon the issue that most directly applies to the distrust of government. When such suspicion results in the active communication of information concerning the pernicious effects of government policies, no temperament is more conducive to the well-being of the public as a whole. The distrust of government, however, becomes pernicious if it results in either of the following: 1, its use by government institutions in order to disavow accountability for their actions, or 2, a vague but inoperative cynicism on the part of the populace, whereby the task of holding the government accountable is abandoned as a fool’s errand.

Both of these pernicious uses of the distrust of government mutually reinforce one another. When the government itself claims its own incompetence, ignorance, and/or ineffectiveness, the aim is to escape public accountability. A government’s appeal to the distrust of government will displace successfully the responsibility for policy insofar as that claim resonates with the people’s own cynicism regarding what government can do. Similarly, whenever the people are content with their own private suspicions regarding the incompetence of government, an incompetent government that disavows responsibility for its own policies is exactly what they will receive. When these sentiments of government disavowal and personal resignation support one another, the distrust of government becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Precisely this brand of mistrust turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy prevents us from holding Bush and his accomplices accountable for their abuses of the public trust. There is only one cure for this disease, and one hope for rehabilitating our social institutions in its wake: the distrust of government must be transformed from a vague, inoperative, private sentiment into a series of specific public accusations. Those in power must be made to account for the consequences of their actions directly. It will not matter what party we choose in November unless all of our representatives fear their constituents more than they defer to private interests. Furthermore, if this fear of the public only extends to the election cycle or the polls, its actual effects upon policy are nil. Cheney’s response, when asked about the Bush Administration’s low poll numbers, was quite candid in this regard: “So?” This blatant disregard for any and all forms of public accountability should be taken as a challenge upon which the health of our democracy entirely depends. For the liberal tradition, it is meaningless to talk about personal liberty unless it is accompanied by a collective mechanism for restraining governmental and corporate interests. If the crimes of the past eight years go unpunished, we can conclude that the U.S. iteration of the liberal experiment in governance ended in failure.

I have already said that Bush and his accomplices will never be held legally responsible for their actions in a criminal court. Fortunately, humanity discovered another more effective means of punishing those guilty of violating the public trust. The social response to such crimes does not strictly require that guilty individuals undergo physical suffering comparable to that which they exacted upon the innocent. Surely, a traitor can never be hanged enough. Rather, criminals of this sort must be made to account for their actions publicly. Admittedly, as Frederick Douglass notes, the threat of physical violence may be required as a persuasive instrument for the procurement of such testimony. However, the true punishment and the true reparation is the testimony itself. Bring on the Truth and Reconciliation.

Image of the U.S. Bill of Rights is available from the National Archives.

• Footnotes
  1. The number of Iraqi dead may very well be much higher than the conservative estimate of 500,000. Already in a  2006 study, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated the number of dead Iraqi civilians at 600,000. A more recent  study  by the British research firm Opinion Research Business calculates the death toll at over a million lives. Neither of these studies factored in deaths from sources like malnutrition and disease that occurred due to the war. []

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