The shadow of 9/11 and the various crises such as Enron and the Middle East that have followed it have obscured an important aspect of the contemporary American condition. America today is experiencing a crisis of integrity. The common denominator that links the Enron fiasco, the crisis in the Catholic Church, the failure of US foreign policy in the Middle East, the patriotism of media, the derailment of the war on terror and the downward spiral of civil rights protection in the US is the steady compromise of moral integrity in American society.
The Enron fiasco highlighted two dangerous trends. The mismanagement of Enron’s finances stemmed from a combination of greed and a callous disregard for law. In pursuit of higher profits, Enron’s executives not only tried to cut corners but also attempted successfully to undermine the integrity of public and private watchdog agencies. Through campaign finance and access to decision making in the White House, former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay was able to influence the control of federal regulatory agency. By using the carrot of additional business through consultation, Enron corrupted Arthur Anderson, whose job as its accountant firm was to check for the very violations of securities and trade regulations that it facilitated to conceal. In the case of Enron both the Federal government and Arthur Anderson violated their trusts.
The sex scandal in the Catholic Church exposes the moral frailty of the spiritual and the religious sphere of American society. The Catholic Church is not only the biggest religious institution in America it is also the biggest institution outside the Federal government. The sex scandal not only shows that over a thousand of its officials violated the ethics of their community, violated the trust and person of their wards but also committed deplorable crimes against society by preying on the most vulnerable, young and innocent members of society. The church scandal has an equivalent of Arthur Anderson in the person of Cardinal Law. Like Arthur Anderson, Cardinal Law too violated his most important duty, to protect those who trust in him. His attempts to conceal crime and not take any action to prevent future occurrence of abuse constitute an enormous breach of integrity. Coming from a Cardinal, one of the highest spiritual ranks in our society, such deliberate dereliction of duty defies description.
The practice of violating ethics to protect the institutions created to advance the very same ethics can also be detected in the actions of the US government in its response to 9/11. The most important objective of the US government is to protect and realize the principles enshrined in the US constitution. Unfortunately to defend democracy and freedom, the present government has decided to violate many of the principles and values that constitute democracy and freedom. The new laws, as in the Patriot act, designed to preempt terrorism and prosecute alleged terrorists clearly subvert several articles of the bill of rights that protect the rights to due process, fair and speedy trials and protect citizens from illegal searches and seizures. The Patriot act in targeting terrorists also ends up targeting the bill of rights.
Another instance where the present government is skirting civil rights responsibilities is with regards to those who were captured in Afghanistan. The government is holding these prisoners as detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to remain outside the jurisdiction of American courts. If these prisoners were on American soil, American courts could order that their rights be protected. Moreover the administration has decided not to fulfill all the requirements stipulated by Geneva conventions and International Law on POWs and is doing so by refusing to acknowledge them as prisoners of war. The international community, particularly European media and governments, has strongly criticized the condition of these prisoners.
US policies in the aftermath of 9/11 have subverted and compromised the inalienability of democratic and human rights by making them seem like luxuries that can be afforded only under secure conditions. The US as the world’s most prominent democracy is sending a wrong signal to the rest of the world. It is suggesting that in moments of crisis and insecurity even the most powerful of states cannot afford to protect democracy, human rights and international laws. Most other nations are far more insecure and often in crisis, how can we then demand that they adhere to international norms and protect civil and political rights of their citizens?
In a democracy the role of the media is to hold the government accountable for its actions and policies. But after 9/11 one increasingly finds reporters and anchormen succumbing to misguided patriotism. Wearing of flags on the suit lapels seems to have become standard uniform for many. In their rush to demonstrate their patriotism and nationalism the media has abdicated its primary responsibility and has become reluctant to challenge or criticize the President and his administration on its conduct of the war on terror and for its role in the Enron fiasco and for the declining human rights standards. The only exception to the rule is when any move by the President or the administration threatens Israeli interests. Then no one is spared. I wish our media would protect American interests with the same zeal that it protects Israeli interests.
Whether it is the private sector, or the public sector or the realm of religion and spirituality, prominent American institutions have recently shown a marked proclivity to compromising of values. The failure of these sections of American society is exaggerated by the failure of the American media that too has allowed 9/11 to undermine its own integrity. Surely it is important that we meet all challenges; but we should not repeat the mistake made by Cardinal Law who in his earnestness to protect the Catholic Church, forgot to protect Catholics and Catholic values. We must protect America, and we must also not forget to protect American values.