Not Guilty by Reason of Ignorance
If there a lesson in this story devoid of lessons, it is that politicians are rarely accountable for what their administrations do. Yes, the scandal hurt Christie, but the I-didn’t-know defense is time-tested. Contrast with Target’s CEO, who wasn’t aware of their data breach, but still sent me a polite e-mail offering to give me a year’s worth of credit monitoring services for free.
The CEO of Target understands that everything is his fault. Christie understands that as long as he remains sufficiently ignorant of what is going on, nothing is his fault. If a twenty-something acted that way, a team of columnists would take turns to literarily defecate on her. How did Millennials get that way? They learned it from watching you.
And lest we think this is about Christie, note Obama used the same defense consequence-free after his administration harassed political opponents through the IRS, after his administration handed weapons to Mexican drug lords, after his administration tapped Andrea Merkel’s private phone, and after the health exchange websites launched DOA. Whoever said ignorance was bliss understated its benefits. (Perhaps they were unaware?)
Among the purported benefits of democracy is that it holds government accountable. But if a politician’s ignorance is reason to hold him unaccountable, you don’t get to claim that as a benefit. If it were revealed tomorrow that some agency has assassinated bloggers, horns would be blown, but no elected official would go to prison. No elected official would lose their job, and the responsible administration would be furious about the leak. Yes, the leak of information they didn’t know anything about.
It’s unimaginable that a present-day Nixon would lose his job. A modern administration would know better than to ask the president whether they could bug the opposing party. They would simply bug the opposing party. Plausible deniability has its own Wikipedia page, but the public still hasn’t devised a workable counter.
There is a certain symmetry between the ignorance defense of politicians and the insanity defense of criminals. But at least we recognize criminals are conceding that they can’t be trusted in society. They are pronounced not guilty and left to rot in a mental institution rather than a prison.
We should treat politicians with equal perspicacity. When a politician admits that he had no clue what his administration is doing, believe him, forgive him, and then explain that knowing what is going on, hiring ethical people, and taking responsibility for what their administration does is part of their job, and if they can’t do those things they should go find a different one.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza