Political Hay

The Blame Lame

Democrats these days feel more at home on the lunatic fringe.

By 3.9.04

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What a revealing line in Richard Cohen's column in the Washington Post about the media-generated furor over Bush campaign ads that include images of the President at the site of Ground Zero in New York only days after September 11th, 2001. Cohen with a typical, and typically unsuccessful, attempt at cleverness writes that he is happy for Bush to take credit in the ads for his behavior after 9/11 so long as he acknowledges his responsibility for the attacks themselves. "Sandy Berger," he writes, "the national security adviser under Bill Clinton, had told Condi Rice, the national security adviser under George W. Bush, that terrorism would be her No. 1 concern -- and yet almost 3,000 lives were lost and a gash punched into the Pentagon and a hole left in the bottom of Manhattan Island. For this, somehow, no one is at fault."

Well, no one except the terrorists, I guess, and there's no point blaming anything on them, is there? All it takes is someone telling you, "Hey, watch out for terrorists," and suddenly you're responsible for anything terrorists may do. There was a time, not so long ago, when sly insinuations of the administration's guilt in the attacks belonged to the lunatic fringe, along with Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal -- assuming you don't think them part of the lunatic fringe. Then Howard Dean remarked that it was "an interesting theory" and the floodgates were opened. Now John Kerry is saying, "I think one of the most critical questions in front of the country is with respect to 9/11, why is this administration stonewalling and resisting the investigation into why we had the greatest security failure in the history of our country and why is he also resisting having an immediate investigation into the security failure with respect to the intelligence in Iraq."

Obviously, there is no hint of gentlemanliness on the part of John Kerry to his fellow Bonesman. Any stick to beat Bush with, that should go without saying. But did Roosevelt carry the can for the "security failure" of Pearl Harbor? Did Wilson for the Lusitania? Did McKinley for the Maine? Did, for that matter, Clinton for the Cole? If a foreign power, or even a state-like entity like al-Qaeda, is determined to mount a surprise attack on us the chances are that they will be able to do so are pretty good. Moreover, to treat it when it happens as merely a lapse in security is a way of avoiding the necessity -- a necessity that Bush saw from the beginning but that Kerry still does not see -- to strike back at the enemy.

But the idea that anyone other than the perpetrators were "at fault" is also sadly typical of our times. It didn't just slip Cohen's mind that the fanatical bin-Ladenists who actually hijacked the jets, killed the pilots, and flew the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were the ones at fault. Like other liberals, he has simply grown accustomed to blaming things on anyone but the obviously guilty parties. There is even a name for the kind of "bigotry" shown by those of us who laugh at him for it. We have, it seems, what the latest thinking in the American Trial Lawyers Association calls "personal responsibility bias." Like irresponsible juries who are inclined to say that those who have eaten, drunk, or smoked themselves into illness have brought it on themselves, we must be educated out of our primitive superstition in favor of individual responsibility.

According to an editorial in the Wall Street Journal a couple of months ago, the American Trial Lawyers Association publication titled ATLA's Litigating Tort Cases by David A. Wenner tells us that "the personal responsibility juror … tends to see the world with bright line rules on how people should act. [He thinks that] people should be self-reliant, responsible, and self-disciplined. When people act irresponsibly and are not self-disciplined, there are consequences. People must be accountable for their conduct." Well, did you ever?

The Democrats, of course, have long been marching in lockstep with the Trial Lawyers, but this is the first time it appears they have had a real influence on Democratic foreign policy. I wonder if Senator Kerry will now acknowledge that, just as whatever happens to us as individuals must be the responsibility of some deep-pocketed individual or corporation, so whatever happens to us as a nation must be the responsibility of some Republican president. It would certainly simplify the decision-making process for the electorate in November.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.