The issue of accountability has suddenly flooded the news. George Tenet, the ex-chief of the CIA, has written a memoir pointing fingers at the White House inner circle for reckless drumming up war with Iraq. Bill Moyers aired a doleful report on the run-up to the war, in which every major news organization, almost without exception, uncritically accepted any flimsy lie or misinformation provided by the administration. (When Sen. Edward Kennedy, the senior liberal in the Senate, gave a 2002 speech that warned about the very outcome we now have in Iraq, - i.e., civil war, no weapons of mass destruction, and an unstoppable insurgency - The Washington Post summarized his remarks in one sentence of 36 words; that same year the paper ran one million words supporting the cause for war.) Finally, new reports are surfacing about unrest in the Army, with younger officers feeling deep distress that the old guard generals have no paid the price for their blunders in the war, or for Abu Ghraib and various other disasters.
All this raises the moral issue of accountability in general, which has always been touchy. When nations win wars, they get to hold the losers accountable, even if both sides committed equal atrocities. In the case of the press, the pundits who shouted for war the loudest blithely continue to offer their opinions without remorse, much less accountability for their tragic errors. Not a single one has been held accountable. Nor will the military ever punish its own except among low-level enlisted men and officers.
Does this bespeak moral degeneration in America? The balance is difficult to call, because in those episodes where adversaries went for the jugular to hold someone accountable -- namely, Watergate and the Clinton impeachment -- the corrosion of public trust was a major fallout. Accountability seems to lead to zealous, self-righteous crusaders of the worse sort. Yet on the other side, the Bush administration has so thoroughly corrupted the practice of truth-telling that the choice of no accountability seems just as unpalatable. (At the World Bank the woes of Paul Wolfowitz have little to do with his hiring a girlfriend so much as long-held resentment that he was shoved down the Europeans' throats by the Bush Administration, a reward to a neo-conservative militarist that was shocking to begin with, almost as shocking as giving George Tenet the Medal of Freedom for botching the intelligence over weapons of mass destruction.)
I doubt that anyone will be seriously held accountable soon on any of these fronts. We use mockery and public humiliation too freely; therefore, it's hard to know what genuine accountability would be. Especially this is so among those who have no conscience, and that includes a broad segment of militarists and neo-conservatives. In the end, too many of the innocent are held accountable, as the families of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians know all too well. The best kind of accountability would be to wipe the slate clean of all the corrupt ideologies that led us into these moral quagmires.