Anyone who has mixed it up over the years in the fights for the rights of the accused, due process and similar persnickety concerns will by now have become known as being "soft on," if not actually for, the following things: rape, murder, mugging, student violence, urban looting, terrorist bombing and lifetime tenure for communist spies in government. This being my own unfortunate condition, I figure I might as well come out now "for" corruption in Congress. I mean, what the hell?
These fatalistic, self-pitying thoughts are occassioned by the row we are having in Washington over the FBI's Abscam project -- the much-leaked and -advertised investigation that is said to have documented some legislators taking fat bribes. At the outset, let me say -- it will do no good -- that I think corrupt public officials are an especially loathsome form of life and should be garroted, and that it would be wonderful if, as rumored, the FBI and Justice Department had targeted as Public Enemy No. 1 organized crime and its secret protectors within officialdom. But the garroting should come after a trail, not before an indictment. And what we know so far of Abscam doesn't sound to me like that long-awaited crackdown on the mob and its political guardians.
What's wrong with Abscam -- or at least with that part of it that has come out and become an issue? Well, first, the public reaction. Everyone in the country, just about, who hasn't (yet) been implicated in the scam, is enjoying it too much. We pretend to be mortally shocked and dispirited that a politician has been videotaped, with the goods. There goes our "faith in the system," we say, and so forth.
Baloney -- people love it. Nothing so reinforces the scrapegoating instinct in us as this. Nothing does more to bolster the pernicious idea that our economic and social troubles are due to the larceny of a few elected officials, as distinct from being largely the predictable consequences of the society's own actions and choices. And nothing does more to pump up the vanity and smugness of that whole Uriah Heepful of commentators and critics whose sense of self-worth seems to depend on demonstrating daily that they themselves walk pure among the venal and the dirty.
One of the most laughable arguments that has been put forward for disregarding the procedural shortcuts in this case -- the airing of incomplete, unsigned and undocumented charges against the accused -- has been that the accused themselves are so powerful, favored, secure and strong that just about anything goes. Much is wrong with this reasoning, but nothing more than the assumption on which it rests. The politician these days is, in terms of public support, about the most unpopular and suspect figure in our national life. He ranks on the affection scale of the new decade somewhere between Alger Hiss and Huey Newton from other ages.
This, of course, does not mean that those legislators who have been named are bound to end up in prison if they have committed crimes. The proceedings are more likely to turn into a holiday (paid) for lawyers, the motions and appeals stretching unto eternity.And this will not just be a result of any damage done to the Justice Department's cases by advance publicity. It will also be because it is so difficult to establish the criminality of the political bribe, and that is because the bribe is so hard to distinguish from the ordinary political-legislative system that you and I have helped to establish and which we sanction.
This, for me, is another uncomfortable aspect of the Abscam enterprise. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that one or two of the congressmen allegedly caught lead my list of least-favorite people on Capitol Hill. Still, the awful truth is that the murky atmosphere of enticement, if not actual entrapment, into which they and the rest were led struck me, upon reading about it, as being very like the atmosphere, the ambience, in which all congressmen habitually operate.
This is a world of parties and receptions night after night, among people who are hardly acquaintances and in no sense friends. It is a world where you rise to declaim about your affection for some other public person you despise. It is a world where there are few ordinary human relations, as distinct from continual transactions. And above all, it is a world in which none of this can ever be acknowledged. The people who lobby for a tax break for your trade group, for a mortgage benefit for me, for all the rest, are -- in some sense -- with their contingent offers of money and support doing what the FBI bribers did.That room in the setup house must have been like hundreds of other "innocent" rooms the congressmen had been in.
Yes, I know that some of the abscammery is alleged to have been just plain greedy briefcase-stuffing, and we're none of us for that. I'm only saying that: 1) I don't think it would be that much of a trick to entice someone over the blurry line; 2) some of the FBI results don't strike me as being nearby as serious forms of payoff-corruption as what goes on (legally) in congressional committees day after day; and 3) even under its new management, the FBI's foray into this line of business has pings and resonances I don't like.
By the year 2000, I suppose, the lawyers will (with luck) have decided whether this was in fact "entrapment," whether the bureau was creating crimes and inviting others, through elaborate temptations and ruses, to participate in them. You have your presupposition about congressman Blather and his inclination to pocket dough. I have mine about Agent Squint and his penchant for crossing the undercover line between investigating crimes and actually generating them. We know plenty about legislators on the take. But we also know plenty about FBI provocations of crime in black-militant and general political-dissident circles, about how you could never be sure just who started the riot.
All I'm asking for is time and due process. Let's not hang these guys in the papers on the basis of charges by nameless, faceless "sources." Let's hang them later -- after we actually know what they did. It's not a whole to ask -- and the rights you save may be your own.