Thursday, December 11, 2014

CIA Revelations—the Search for Ethics in an Unethical Trade



America seems in an endless cycle of standing proudly before the world with its pants around its ankles. The CIA revelations are but the latest example.

The Dalai Lama, in a visit to Prague several years ago, responded to a question from his audience about the moral state of the Czech Republic, particularly its well-known reputation at home concerning fraud and corruption. Paraphrasing his response, he said “the morality of a government reflects the morality of its citizens.” It was at the time and remains a sobering thought.


And so we Americans must be equally sober in our response to what we now know to be true of one of our major governmental institutions. Approaching the 70th anniversary of the Nurnberg Trials for Nazi war crimes, that trial purported to dispense justice to those who (quite logically) plead that they were ‘merely following orders’ approved by their constitutional government.

With little patience for that excuse, we allied nations hanged them by the dozen and sent the rest to lengthy prison terms, boasting that we had brought justice to a war-torn world. How things change, depending upon whom is in the dock. I was very young at the time, but the message remained clear throughout my lifetime that America was founded on law and justice. What message do we send now and what has the Dalai Lama to teach me now if I am to take his words seriously?

My take on it is that the present situation with the CIA (and the NSA, Homeland Security, FBI and who knows what else) is not an aberration, but the unwinding over seven decades of who we have become as a nation. And by that I don’t mean our government and those who represent us in Washington, but ourselves as citizens. We are our nation. As citizens, we hardly dare point elsewhere. This present moment must not become just another news event, fading and forgotten in the public memory as the next crisis hits the headlines. We cannot fail in a national obligation to pledge ourselves to rewind that unwinding.

There was a time when we as a nation healed our enemies with Marshall Plan help for those without hope and healed ourselves by confronting civil-rights abuses. A time of Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post covers that rang true and made us proud to be Americans, a time when we spoke to one another, paid our taxes, took out the garbage and kept up with what our kids were up to at and after school.

If that pledge sounds old-timey and out of date, perhaps the fault is yours and not mine. It happens that I was alive during those decades and they are not history to me, they’re real. It seems the world and our place in it escaped our consciousness and understanding. If that’s true, our job is not to rage and mob the streets of Berkeley, but to understand how we have come to this disheartening moment.

There were markers along the way; the Cold War, defeat in one domino-effect war after another, the long and aggravating slide of our economy from producer to consumer, lender to borrower, iconic source of freedom to self-interested bully, terrorizing the international street. Where once we healed our adversaries, now we simply destroy them and walk away from the disasters left in our wake. Beginning in the 80s, we chose to kick the morality can down the road from one administration to another, choosing instead to get as rich as we could as quickly as we could and damn those left behind.

Is it any wonder we find our reflected selves among the fraudsters in the banking and business community, lied to by candidates who fail to legislate when we elect them and those who elect to cheat on taxes when the cheating is there to be had? Since 9-11 we’ve walked in fear, terrified of an outside world we know little of and well on the way to becoming terrified of our armed and jobless neighbors. We have allowed America to become a permanently fear-based nation. You and I allowed it by default.

My god, after Pearl Harbor we came together, went to work and to war in defense of our founding principles, then won the battle and healed those who attacked us. Who wouldn’t love a country like that? Anyone with a brain knows you can’t be loved until you learn to love yourself and perhaps we lost that love of ourselves as a nation, slowly, grindingly over decades and as if by witchcraft.

But we are still there as the America we once were, if we choose to look at ourselves honestly and admit that enough is enough. That steady gaze won’t end the unwinding by itself, but it will mark the beginning of the end.