Remember "mutually assured destruction?" MAD was the Cold War game theory that said it made sense for the Soviets and the U.S. to have enough nuclear weapons to destroy the planet because then a first strike by either side would result in the annihilation of both sides. Since both sides were rational and wouldn't risk their own destruction, the MAD doctrine kept a tense peace. And given the logic of MAD, both sides did act rationally.
The opposing sides in the attacks of American politics have not learned to act rationally under similar conditions.
Politicians have the ability to destroy each other. Their weapons are negative ads, investigations and parliamentary stunts, and they are promiscuous in using them. In each specific battle, there may appear to be a survivor, even a victor -- the party that wins the election or the Senate vote, the party that blocks the judicial nomination or gets the Cabinet member to resign in scandal.
But as a group, elected and appointed officials have been destroyed. They are not held in high esteem, they are heroes to few children and their motives are always questioned. They are, to use a derogatory phrase, politicians.
When something bad happens in the world, there is generally a ritualistic acting out of political MAD; the out team blames the in team for what went wrong, which is probably an uncontrollable event; the in team then refuses to acknowledge mistakes or accept responsibility for the things that could have been controlled.
We're seeing this now with the politics of 9/11.
The 9/11 blame game took a while to start; even self-destructive, non-MAD politicians sensed danger in starting too soon after the tragedy.
But something about Richard Clarke's book and testimony broke the dam. The blame and blame-avoidance have been at flood levels since his appearance on 60 Minutes. Perhaps because he was an insider, or maybe because of how specific his charges were, Clarke gave the president's opponents a blood scent. They were free to do what they really hadn't done in the two and a half years since 9/11 -- blame the Bush administration. For ignoring Clarke's memo's. For not caring enough about al Qaeda. For being stuck in the Cold war.
Never mind that for most of the time since the tragedy, we have understood that the country, the past two administrations and the American foreign policy establishment simply were not in the post-9/11 vigilant mentality before 9/11. With very few exceptions, no one saw the threat everyone now sees. Americans realized that and, for a change, there was no search for scapegoats after 9/11. That has changed in recent weeks.
The Bush administration's response was to hunker down. They attacked Clarke, his credibility and him personally. They attacked Bill Clinton. They admitted no mistakes, no lapses, no opportunities missed. And they offered no apologies. They portrayed the 9/11 Commission as a lynch mob, which it isn't. They tried to withhold the star witness, Condoleezza Rice.
None of this worked, of course. This administration, like past administrations, does not admit to mistakes. Ever. This administration will not admit to making a dishonest case for the war in Iraq or for underselling the risks of occupation. It was certainly not going take the blame for 9/11, which wasn't, in fact, its fault.
So the administration shouldn't apologize for 9/11. But there was a way to take responsibility and admit to the smaller errors that were made. The administration shouldn't have attacked Clarke, undermined the commission and withheld materials and witnesses. The president should have taken the high road instead of the low road.
Now that Rice has testified, the American attention span will quickly shift. Who lost? I expect that both sides have been cheapened slightly. More importantly, the serious mission of the 9/11 Commission may be threatened by being caught up in a ritual blame slaughter conducted by others.
Both impulses in this kind of unseemly political cannibalism are reflected in broader society.
Politicians blame and so do we, like no other culture on earth. Americans need someone to blame, and preferably sue, for every ill befalls us. And that someone has to be someone else -- not me, not you. Coffee burns at McDonalds. A dot-com stock gone bust. A sports injury. Someone is to blame. Somebody's gonna pay.
Politicians avoid responsibility and so do we. Evil marketers tricked me into smoking, into a racking up all that credit card debt, into eating too much. My kid misbehaves because he has low self-esteem. The CEO of the mutual fund company under indictment will fire a few guys down the ladder but stay on to make another $100 million, with no apologies.
The politicians haven't caused us to become a society that is quick to blame and long to shirk responsibility. But they do set a perfect example.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editoral Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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By Dick Meyer