Who Watches the Watchers?

I had to re-read it, to make sure I read her message right. Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus sympathizes with government officials who violate laws and the United States Constitution because they have a “good faith” (how can she use this term in this context?) belief that their actions are necessary to preserve the country. For this, she gets the Ollie North Award for official vigilantism, to be presented at Vice President Cheney’s hidden bunker. Cheney and Rumsfeld and their Iago-like lawyers might be pardoned for their lawless incarceration and interrogation and investigatory excesses, Marcus muses. She was, when younger, “revolted” by comparable bad behavior by government officials, but now she is sorry, at some level, for the actors. She should have followed her early reactions.

In her op-ed essay, she asks the right question — how far can government go infringing on personal privacy and individual liberty in the name of guarding public safety? But she shocks me in her answer, remembering empathetically the cynical pardons by former Presidents Nixon and Reagan of their governmental colleagues’ misconduct. In his writings on morals and law, the late Edmond Cahn explained why the worst offenses in society are those committed by law enforcement officials and those who carry out constitutional roles in government. They act for us all, so their offenses are in the name of the people.

Her column raised the classic question about the predicament of moral state authority. Ms. Marcus’s empathy for people in power who decide what laws do and do not apply to them is what the Stasi, and all other excessive regimes, relied on to justify their outrages on civil societies. Corruption always follows when people in power decree that what they think is best for others is better than what they decided for themselves. In religion, when the powerful elite do this, inquisitions follow in the name of God. In state governments, the same is so, but it is called executive power. In both cases, history demonstrates that such rationales are pernicious.

That the same Washington Post editorial page, which half a century ago was singularly outspoken about the abuses of McCarthyism, should give voice to Ms. Marcus’s finding herself in the camp that would excuse the constitutional abuses of the Bush-Cheney years marks a sad change of moral leadership in this national newspaper. Alan Barth is turning in his heavenly grave.


Visit www.RonaldGoldfarb.com.

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