"A struck dog always hollers" is the folk maxim that comes to mind every time an official Soviet publication --the latest was Pravda--indignantly denies a Soviet hand in the attempted murder of Pope John Paul II.
The chain of evidence now called the "Bulgarian connection," linking would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca via Sofia to Moscow, is circumstantial and sketchy. It may remain sketchy since, as Michael Ledeen has put it, there is no freedom of information act in the Soviet Union.
But there is already an interesting division of opinion between those who find a Soviet role in that ghastly crime supposable (as I do) and those who do not.
Wherever power is absolute, or as nearly absolute as it is in the Soviet Union, one need not seek some special corruption of the human spirit. It is enough to recall Lord Acton's famous warning, in the letter to Bishop Creighton, that "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Every known Soviet crime against freedom and civility argues that no measure is beyond imagining if it promises to pluck a thorn from the Soviet side.
There are no doubt millions of Russians who would be appalled to find that their leaders had committed such a crime, as we would be. The difference between the systems is elementary. In the Soviet Union, there is no machinery of self-correction.
The exemption of those who exercise power from any normal check whatsoever is the most striking and sinister feature of the Russian state, now as ever.
Alone among European monarchs, the Russian czars never countenanced the institutionalization of power. Their personal absolutism flowed, unmodified, into the modern absolutism of the one-party state. But with an important omission: Christian conscience sometimes beset the czars when their cossacks had darkened the streets with the blood of political petitioners; even that compunction is gone.
There is, then, no dispersion of power, no check on the willfulness of old men who have spent a lifetime getting and keeping place and privilege.
It is beyond me to say why anyone would imagine that such a political system would shrink from the murder of a pope if it were thought expedient.
Well, say some, even if it is morally imaginable, it is implausible on practical grounds--the fear of exposure, say, or the fear that such a plot might miscarry.
A plausible argument, of course, if you forget what absolute power does to those who hold it. But it fails to reckon with the anxiety that goes with absolutism. It produces no serenity, only an hour-by-hour worry that some loose thread might lead to the unraveling of the whole fabric.
Such a loose thread, in Soviet eyes, was (and is) the influence of the Polish pope, John Paul II. A magnetic presence and a brave and sophisticated man, he was, at the time, when he was shot the chief guarantor of the precarious independence Solidarity had achieved. Without the pope, it could not be sustained. With him--and especially if it is true that he threatened to go to Poland in the event of a Soviet invasion--it could be seen as a serious threat to the whole Soviet empire.
It seems to me useful and desirable to press to the bottom of the plot against the pope, lead where it may. The Bulgarian connection may end in Sofia, though I am confident it does not.
However appalling the plot, it will not in itself remove the need to live on the same planet with the Soviet Union, nor erase the need for reciprocal arms accords and restraint.
The primary use of getting to the bottom of the story, assuming that the Bulgarian connection leads to Moscow, is to remind us of the perils and temptations of absolutism. Where political power is unchecked, all evils are imaginable. It is the oldest of history's lessons. In fact, it should require no such grisly tale as this to remind us of its perennial validity.