What should we do if we observe a prison camp that imprisons innocent people? That question arose when the United States government rounded up Japanese American citizens after Pearl Harbor, and put them in camps for the entire war. Are the guards in those camps innocent? What about the people who planned the camps, who employed the guards and gave orders to all the people required to run the camps? How would you bring those officials to account for what they did wrong?
We know that’s a difficult problem to resolve, because the people who created those camps never were brought to account. No one responsible for maintaining, overseeeing, funding, supplying, managing, staffing, or certifying the legality of those camps was ever asked, what the hell are you doing? How can you imprison American citizens without due process? Of course people did ask that question at the time, but no one in government had to answer it.
What is the proper reaction of onlookers when trusted individuals or institutions in authority commit crimes? We have had some opportunity to consider that question in relation to Jerry Sandusky’s activities at Penn State. Jerry Sandusky had an opportunity to carry out his crimes because he held a position of prestige in the university’s revered football program. He had social immunity, as do church leaders and other leaders whom we respect because of their positions. We give some people the benefit of the doubt.
An adult raping a young boy is one of the worst crimes you can commit. Yet the more heinous the crime, the more our social brains and diffident hearts seem to find a way to overlook it. No one wants to make such a charge if one is not confident of support from others. We learned during Sandusky’s trial that people at Penn State knew what he was doing for a long time. Yet they could not admit it, nor did they act on their intuition.
What if the criminal institution in question is your own government? Suppose we discover that people who hold respected positions in our government are actually criminals, that their crimes include assassination, torture, international aggression, and systematic violation of our Constitution? If you wanted to find out whether government officials had participated in crimes of that magnitude, how would you do that? Would you ask people in government to find out?
When something suspicious occurs out in the provinces, so to speak, government agencies typically investigate the possibility of foul play to determine what happened, how it happened, and who was involved. If government is the main suspect in a criminal case, you cannot ask government to investigate itself. The Warren Commission and the 9/11 Commission show you the results. Yet under our laws, government agencies are the only bodies with authority to conduct criminal investigations. Can government officials commit as many crimes as they like, because no independent authority exists to call the individuals who commit these crimes to account? The most disturbing thing to note is that these officials know they are not subject to the same laws they administer for everyone else. They know that, for the time being, what they do is hidden.
We have already observed that the people who lost their lives in the World Trade Center did not die because of structural weakness in the buildings they occupied. When two one-hundred-ten story towers built of steel and concrete blow up right in front of you, and a third forty-seven story building collapses into itself in a matter of seconds, you ask why something like that might occur. One group of government experts says that fires in each building weakened the steel at critical points, causing a progressive collapse in all three buildings. Another group of experts, outside of government, says that jet fuel fires cannot melt steel. Even if they could, they point out, structural weakness high in a skyscraper would not cause steel supports to give way in the floors below.
For a disagreement this fundamental, you want to gather substantive information before you reach conclusions about what happened. You would want to consider all the evidence relevant to the events in question. Further, you would seek four qualities in people who investigate a matter this important:
- Possess professional expertise to ask discerning questions, assemble relevant evidence, and draw sound conclusions from the evidence assembled.
- Free from conflicts of interest during the investigation.
- Resources sufficient to complete the inquiry.
Government fails the first three tests. You have to ask, then, who is left to conduct an inquiry of this type? How do you investigate a crime, or a pattern of illegal behavior, when you cannot rely on law enforcement officials to reach truthful conclusions? More to the point, why do we look to government to conduct these inquiries? That we do indicates we have not solved the problem of who will guard the guards, or overcome our in-built reluctance to know the truth about people in high places.