Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Question Of American Guilt

I was watching Charlie Rose's conversation with Frank Langella and Ron Howard about the upcoming Frost/Nixon. The general flow of the conversation seemed to be about remembering Richard Nixon the human being, the almost Grecian-tragedy figure, steeped in hubris and ambition, who catastrophically fell from grace. And multiple times, Frank Langella (who has the fascinating task of becoming Richard Nixon) says that while he cannot pardon what Nixon did, it is helpful to remind ourselves that we are quick to judge and harsh; that we forget the living flesh human being behind the crimes.

Now, I agree with that. But that does not mean we should let our anger and condemnation of public officials go. Public officials should be treated with little tolerance for their crimes.

I saw a quotation in Time Magazine today that was attributed to Eliot Spitzer. A reporter asked him how he was liking being a contributing writer for Slate.com, and he responded:

"It sucks. I was Governor of New York."

There's a world of pain, and a world of arrogance, contained in those two sentences. But at the same time, what he did is unpardonable. He cannot be rehabilitated into our public office. He broke a public trust, and for that, he suffers the consequence. But we should do well to notice the human being behind the mask.


The question is, what's the point? What's the point in Stone's W. or Frost/Nixon or a billion soul-searching journalist pieces about the life and times of Spitzer, Edwards, Blagojevich, Stevens, Foley, Craig, Abramoff, DeLay, Gonzalez, Cheney, Yoo, Rumsfeld, Kissinger, McNamara, etc. etc. etc.?

If one looks at it once, the message might be, as Frank Langella says, to remember that we judge too harshly. But I disagree with that message. In truth, the message is that we should not forget that people become guilty without looking or acting like the criminals we are used to: the caricaturish images of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or Idi Amin is not the only face of criminality.

People who commit crimes always believe that what they were doing is right. And some people manage to convince others that what they are doing is right. They slide by on the subjectivity of less clear crimes--crimes of a smaller scale, crimes in the pursuit of good.

And they involve themselves less directly in crime: they fail to speak out; they defend the crimes using statements which, if not untrue, may be dishonest.


At the end of World War Two, Karl Jaspers gave a lecture which came to be published as The Question Of Guilt. In English, you will find this book titled The Question Of German Guilt, but in truth, it is not that. Although in his context (in 1945, addressing a class of Heidelberg students who all served, in various capacities, in the Nazi Military) it bore specific resonance to the fabric of German society, it is true for every society at every moment in history.

For me, I would merely quibble a little with Jaspers on one point: he uses the word "guilt." I would use the word "responsibility." To say that each of us is guilty, to lesser and greater extents, for the war crimes, the corruption, the poverty, etc. is true, but it plays into a tendency to over-criminalize. Guilt is about condemnation; about destruction of character. The guilty are to be cast out.

Some of the people involved in each of these moments of history are guilty. But everyone is responsible. Once you are responsible beyond a certain degree, you are guilty.


Colin Powell is not guilty of war crimes. He did not order nor carry out war crimes. But as an influential and respected member of the Bush Administration, his failure to discover or intervene or warn about war crimes (as well as his complicity in creating an atmosphere where it was possible, inasmuch as he touted the Iraq War) means that he is responsible. He is not as responsible as Donald Rumsfeld, whose signature on the memo detailing what methods of torture are acceptable shows he bears not only responsibility, but guilt.

As the years pass forward from the Bush Administration, we will need to investigate who is responsible, and who is guilty. We will need to look every public figure in the eye and say, "Where were you, and what were you doing? What could you have done?" But in order to do that properly, we need to understand. We need to investigate what the context was, both human and political. They will not absolve of guilt (as Frost/Nixon clearly does not absolve Nixon of Guilt) or of responsibility (which nothing can absolve one of). But they will allow us to judge what we could have done.


I disagree with Karl Jaspers' selection of the word "Guilt" for the title of the lecture, and I disagree with the translator's insistence on the word "German" as a terrible addition. But there is one word in the title which fits like a glove: "Question." Because the point is that this is not an answer: we will not know for certain exactly to what degree President Bush was evil, misled, or apathetic; to what degree it was Cheney or Rumsfeld or whomever that originally conceived of the idea of torture. Responsibility (and guilt) lies both at the top and the bottom of the food chain; it lies both in the Executive and Legislative branches; it lies in the American People who, in 2004, re-elected the President who made it all possible.

It's a question we're going to have to have a mature dialogue about. But that mature dialogue requires the facts, and those facts require the justice system. And those, I believe, require Patrick Fitzgerald appointed to Special Prosecutor.

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