THE GREAT EITHER/OR thing, America's favorite substitute for thought, has now taken over the ABSCAM dispute. You can be either for the rights of the accused or against money-corruption in high places, but certainly not both, the thinking goes. It would be like walking and chewing gum at the same time -- too hard.
Why is this? How is it that so many people who once prided themselves on concern for civil liberties and civil rights and on a healthy, endemic suspicion of the FBI are so amiable acquiescing in what is going on? Why are so many journalists letting themselves be played like violins? The irony is rich, at least if you are over a certain age: liberal intellectuals walking around explaining that while they may not like all of the FBI's methods, they certainly approve of its objectives.
God knows, we ourselves are prepared to believe the worst -- and probably then some -- on the subject of government officials' being on the take. Plenty of them have been demonstrated to be. Plenty more will follow. And the fact is that the whole ambiance of the Congress rests on a system of trades and transactions that, if not downright corrupt, are at best morally ambiguous. But more than the usual smugness and self-satisfaction that people feel when these things come out about public officials has been in evidence this time, more than the usual glee in comfirming that "they" are all a bunch of crooks, etc. There is also a new element: the collective, heavy sigh that after Watergate you would have thought things would be different.
It is this sense of the monstrous outrage of it all, the scandal that in these post-Watergate years politicians could still be ankle-deep in dirty money, that is sometimes invoked to justify the cut procedural corners -- a clop to due process here, a sloppy unproven charge there. But has everyone forgotten so soon that Watergate was about more than one kind of corruption? It was not just (or even principally) about campaign-fund and other money scandals. And it was not just about people's using their high office to acquire more power or wealth or whatever it was they were collecting that week. It was also -- and in its most sinister aspects -- precisely about the abuse of power by federal law-enforcement authorities, authorities who are granted extraordinary rights and privileges in the society on the premise that they will use them in decent, legal and constitutional ways. Using the funds and the police power of the FBI and the Justice Department to stalk, tempt and (possibly) entrap people in criminal acts and then -- without so much as bringing charges against them -- disclosing great chunks of the "evidence" to the public is such an abuse.
What we are saying is that this seems to be a story not just of one kind of official corruption, but of two. There is the corruption of bribes, payoffs, extortion and the rest that are alleged in the FBI leaks, and there is the corruption of the FBI's campaign of pre-trial character assassination itself, an abuse of the police power that, in the scale of things, we would regard as probably more dangerous to people's well-being than the money-corruption being charged. Don't get us wrong: we're not for either. We simply find it disturbing and baffling that so many people who knew what was wrong with any number of previous FBI involvements in provocations, campaigns to discredit public figures, infiltration and press leaks that could destroy a reputation in a way you could never repair are merely dismissing the protests as some over-finicky concern for civil liberties, rather than insisting that this time the bureau play by the rules. Yes, we know the press has a role in this. The press has been at once too aggressive in airing the unproven charges and too reticent about tracking down their purpose and their source. That is a large part of what is wrong.