When Decency Goes AWOL

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Sep 17, 2007 12:01 AM
When Decency Goes AWOL

When regard for truth has been broken down or even slightly weakened, all things will remain doubtful.-- St. Augustine, "On Lying"

Lying is a moral issue difficult to be absolute about. Most of us accept a little white lie to spare a person's feelings. A roguish Southern politician I know dutifully compliments every baby held out by a beaming mother, but occasionally a child is thrust at him that's so plain he can't think of a single thing to compliment. So with a big smile he exclaims: "That's some baby!" The fib is acceptable because the mother is pleased. No harm is done. We accept a lie that spares a life or a lie that defends a life, including the speaker's own. But a slander is the most grievous sin of all.

In Dante's Inferno, deceivers are dispatched to the eighth circle of hell enduring cruel enough punishment, but traitors, "sowers of schism and of discord," are sent to the ninth circle and suffer even greater torment. That's why the attacks on the character and integrity of Gen. David Petraeus are little short of heinous. If the lie imperils the fighting men and women entrusted to his care, the general is a traitor to his country. The lie gives the edge to the enemy.

There is no greater lie than to falsely accuse a person of being a liar. The slander by MoveOn.org, the smearing machine of the Democratic lunatic left, rises to the highest office of the land, falsely accusing the president of lying about weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which was not a lie but a mistake based on the intelligence gathered by several nations of the coalition. A mistake is not a lie; an accusation of mistake has no power to destroy a reputation.

Lying in politics is not new, but what is new is the thundering silence from critics of policy who know better and who say nothing. In time truth generally wills out, but when media is instantaneously ubiquitous, a lie, in the words of a senator of the previous century, runs halfway around the world before truth can get its boots on. A lie distracts debate, inhibits rational discussion, curtails the free expression of ideas and reduces honest differences of opinion to vicious tirades. And it lives forever in the infinity of the Internet, even after exposed as a lie.

Lies poison the debate, which is exactly what Rep. Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, set out to do when he opened hearings to listen to Gen. Petraeus. He accused him, without evidence, of delivering a report ghost-written by the White House, and delivered a broadside: "We cannot take anything this administration says on Iraq at face value." Every one of his colleagues who refused to condemn the slander perpetuated in the MoveOn.org ad were co-conspirators in the lie. Lantos' slur was particularly sad because, as a survivor of the Holocaust and a onetime hero of the Hungarian resistance, he knows about such lies.

"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it," Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda, infamously said. "The lie can be maintained only for such time as the state can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the state to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the state."

Those who let the slanders against Gen. Petraeus stand can't even take satisfaction from the general's judgment that thousands of troops can be brought home by next summer. If there is no confidence in his truthfulness on one issue, can he be trusted on another?

Pundits have compared the poisonous slander against Gen. Petraeus to Sen. Joseph McCarthy's smear of Gen. George C. Marshall in 1951. Where is that crusty old Boston lawyer Joseph Welch, who famously demanded of Joe McCarthy: "Sir, have you no decency?"

Decency is an old-fashioned virtue fusing manners and morals, and it often seems to have gone AWOL in the modern world. Decency once served as guide for both public and private behavior. In our free-for-all politics, when anything goes, where conflicts on Capitol Hill have long since lost all trace of civility, it's a virtue rarely recalled. That's too bad. We need an honest and robust debate about the war. But when every debating point is dismissed as a lie and every adversary is scorned as a liar, debate becomes impossible. Dante's eighth circle becomes a crowded place.