"If (danger) ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher.
--Abraham Lincoln, 27 January 1838
One of the most oft-repeated phrases used by American political leaders to describe the greatness of our land is that the United States is "the indispensable nation." Without doubt our country has achieved a number of remarkable and praise-worthy feats in its history. However, over the past several decades we have allowed a just pride in our land to morph into a potentially dangerous strain of arrogance. One of the most dangerous mindsets among the most senior leaders in this country -- whether political, corporate, or banking industries -- is that some believe they are above the law and not subject to the same ethical standards required of our citizenry. The consequences of this unsustainable behavior have been manifesting themselves with increasing regularity over the past few years. If we fail to recognize the threat and take corrective action as a nation, the future of our land becomes uncertain.
Eric Alterman's When Presidents Lie chronicles how official deception began decades ago. His book analyzes the lies told by five US Presidents spanning 1945 to 1987. In each of the cases of Presidential duplicity examined, Alterman discovered "these lies returned to haunt their tellers, destroying the very policy that the lie had originally be told to support. Without exception, each of the presidents (or his successor) paid an extremely high price for his lies. So, too, did the nation to whose leadership he was entrusted."
In September of last year the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence convened a hearing to examine domestic surveillance laws. Senator Ron Wyden voiced concerns over past statements made by several Administration officials. "Notwithstanding the extraordinary professionalism and patriotism of thousands of dedicated intelligence professionals," he said, "the leadership of your agencies built an intelligence collection system that repeatedly deceived the American people. Time and again, the American people were told one thing about domestic surveillance in public forums, while government agencies did something else in private." Politics, of course, has no corner on mendacity.
Outright lying to the government and public about conducting illegal activities was at the heart of the Enron disaster that wiped out life savings and retirement accounts for thousands of workers. It also played a central role in the banking disaster and mortgage crisis of the 2007-08. Charles W. Murdock, professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, came to the conclusion in his article Why Not Tell the Truth: Deceptive Practices and the Financial Meltdown that honesty is no minor issue. "The virtue of truthfulness is not just some abstract moral principle," he wrote, but "is a critical component of a well functioning society. As the current situation demonstrates, the lack of regard for truthfulness can have disastrous consequences..." These consequences are beginning to manifest in troubling ways.
Recent polling data confirms that a majority of Americans -- in some cases a vast majority -- have very low levels of trust in our ruling institutions. Only about a fifth of the population has a lot or great deal of trust in big business. Americans have an all-time historic low level of trust for the US Congress -- a minuscule 7 percent -- and distrust in the government as a whole is at an historic high: 81 percent. Though these numbers are abysmal, the troubling aspect of the reporting is that the numbers continue to trend in the wrong direction. Meaning, it will likely get worse without corrective action. This condition is more serious than some realize.
Enshrined in the opening lines of our Declaration of Independence is this warning: "Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." I believe it is an unwise and unsafe assumption to presume that the governed will forever give their consent to a government increasingly perceived as dishonest and untrustworthy. To make sure our country never finds out if there is a point at which the governed of this nation call into question its consent, we have to make some meaningful changes in how we conduct our affairs.
I argue the first change should come from we the people. One of the 7 Army Values obligates Soldiers to "Do what's right, legally and morally," and that integrity "requires that you do and say nothing that deceives others." Why should we not demand our public officials and business leaders adhere to the same values we require of those in our Armed Services?
A key way to begin restoring trust in the government will be for men and women with character, moral courage, and discipline to run for elected office. We, the people, will then have to do our part and vote these highly qualified and ethical people into office. Trust between the government and the people can be repaired, but it's going to require a willingness on everyone's part to aspire to a higher standard.
I have confidence the character and nature of our citizens will prove to be bigger than any individual business leader or office-holder's shortcomings. By maintaining the sober vigilance against the self-destructive behaviors about which Abraham Lincoln warned in 1838, we can ensure the vitality of our nation continues well into the future.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the US Army.