Going Over the Decency Cliff

The looming fiscal cliff has received almost as much publicity as the Mayan prediction of the end of the world. This column has warned that the nation also faces a strategic cliff that could pose even greater jeopardy than from the fiscal woes. But there is a third and possibly more precipitous cliff.

This should be called the ‘decency cliff’. When a nation fails to live up to basic standards of decency, bad things happen. Revolutions, uprisings and repressions occur. America now teeters on this cliff. One of the symptoms is the explosion of what can be called ‘mini-McCarthys’, pint-sized versions of Tail Gunner Joe McCarthy, the disgraced and reprimanded former senator from Wisconsin.

For those not of an age or disinterested in politics, McCarthy was the most vile of politicians — a liar, drunk, and mentally unstable individual who, in the 1950s, made a career of ruining Americans merely by calling them communists. McCarthy even had the temerity to accuse General George Marshall of heinous behaviour before the Senate finally censured him and ended the reign of terror he so embraced.

Two examples of this decency cliff are self-evident. The first is what if anything will be done in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut school massacre in which 20 young children were brazenly murdered. The second is how we treat potential appointees for high office.

The roots of this decency gap are decades old. Political correctness was an antecedent. Cultural censors attacked the use of any language that was not plain vanilla in content on the grounds of offending some group, somewhere. And the Supreme Court was not helpful.

In three of the worst cases of jurisprudence since Plessey Versus Ferguson — DC v Heller that changed the meaning of the Second Amendment about gun rights; Bush v Gore that elected a president; and United Citizens that permitted political action committees unlimited political spending — the forces of indecency have been multiplied. Hence, not only is it fair game to conjure up the most horrible misrepresentations and slanders about individuals, vast funding is available for those slurs and wrongful allegations.

Regarding gun control, it is inconceivable that this nation does not have stronger prohibitions beginning with mandatory licensing for all gun owners and users. Tragically, the 1986 Heller decision ignored the meaning of “a well regulated militia” as the basis for the right to keep and bear arms. And apologists for the broader interpretation of the Second Amendment duck this latest tragedy by arguing we need to focus on fixing mental health and a culture of media violence first.

Regarding the mini-McCarthys, Ambassador Susan Rice was the latest casualty. While this column opposed her nomination, the reasons had nothing to do with the Benghazi tragedy or alleged cover-up, a cover-up that the Accountability Panel headed by Ambassador Tom Pickering and Admiral Mike Mullen absolutely rejected. She was simply not the best qualified person for the job of the Secretary of State.

Now, former Sergeant and Senator Chuck Hagel is in the sights of the mini-McCarthys. Branded an anti-Semite and anti-gay, Hagel’s extraordinary service to his country in war and in peace is being tarnished for obscenely perverse and wrong reasons. In full disclosure, we are colleagues at the Atlantic Council and have been friends for a long time.

Make no mistake: Chuck Hagel would make a great secretary of anything. But his suitability for the position is not the issue. Decency is. Moreover, people who make slanderous and simply wrong accusations must be held accountable. Given the pernicious and septic nature of our political system and the overriding proposition that “you are either with us or against us”, decency is unlikely to win through without some help from the president and the public. So where is the outrage?

President Barack Obama can navigate the nation back to a course where common decency and civil dialogue are not automatically excluded from politics. First, the White House must craft a basic gun control bill. Then, this bill should be subjected to a national referendum. Surely, money for that referendum can be easily raised. No doubt, such a bill would secure a large majority in its favour. So armed, it will be difficult for Congress to bow to the NRA and other lobbies and reject this bill.

Second, the administration must be pro-active in defending people it is considering for high office. As Sergeant Hagel knows, ‘no-man’s land’ is the worst place to find oneself in war and in peace. Clearly, eminent Americans should stand up and correct the record, especially against overtly slanderous and deliberately misleading charges.

Finally, the public has a role. The issue is not politics. The issue is decency. And here we face a dangerous cliff unless we are prepared to change course.

Harlan Ullman, a senior advisor at the Atlantic Council, is chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business. This column was syndicated by UPI.

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