CLOONEY'S 'GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK' HAS AMPLE LESSONS FOR TODAY
by James Murtagh, M.D.
American Reporter Correspondent
ATLANTA -- "And the Goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a Land not inhabited." (Leviticus, 16:22).
Was the Salem witch trial of 1659 an aberration? How badly did the 1950's Red Scare harm our nation's security? In the process of arguing that the press must have backbone, George Clooney has produced a spectacular allegory that explains why American citizens must forever be vigilant if they want to remain free.
Clooney shows, as Arthur Miller also did in "The Crucible," that in desperate times, citizens are depressingly predictable, and yearn for shortcuts and scapegoats. Mobs lynch scapegoats, or burn them at stakes, or torture them, intern them in camps, or simply blacklist them. Good people look the other way, rationalizing that desperate times make due process impossible.
But when are times not desperate?
The press fears the mob, not wanting to be accused of obstructing, or being liberal, or biased in another way, or unpopular, or to lose subscriptions or advertisers. No one in the press wants to be called a scapegoat lover, witch lover, commie lover, etc. This is how national tragedies occur. And when the press repeatedly forgets how it failed during a prior emergency, the cycle worsens.
"Good Night, And Good Luck" brilliantly portrays Edward R. Morrow's fight against Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wesconsin. America faced the very real threat of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. However, the unscrupulous McCarthy escalated the risk by exploiting people's fears with highly sophisticated psychological scapegoating.
The scapegoat originates in Leviticus 16. The community projected its troubles ritually on a sacrificial goat that was driven off into the wilderness on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Psychologically, the community may have felt better, but blaming the scapegoat was a bit of witch-doctoring that only prevented real solutions from being found.
McCarthy gained power by falsely accusing good men of being Communists. This prevented a confrontation with real threats, and ultimately made a mockery of the entire problem. The scapegoating was counterproductive.
Murrow, with unflinching integrity, faced down not only McCarthy, but his own network and his sponsors. Can anyone imagine that Murrow would not have outed the faulty intelligence that preceded the current war? Murrow, a decorated war correspondent, would never have accepted violations of the Geneva Convention without a stern protest..
The puritans of Salem in 1659 were every bit as terrified of witches as we are today of our adversaries. The population demanded due process be suspended.
However, to try and decide who is a good witch and who is a bad witch, one needs to know what a witch is. The same with the Red Scare. Being a "card-carrying Communist" meant almost as little then as carrying an ACLU card does now.
Ironically, the whole concept of law originated, of all places, in Iraq. The Babylonian king Hammurabi in 1780 B.C. came up with a bedrock principle: the rule of law that the accused must always face his accuser. The law of Hammurabi was an alternative to scapegoating. Abraham, who lived in Babylon at the time of Hammurabi, is believed to have introduced those laws into Hebrew custom.
Hammurabi was clear. There must be due process. However, in age after age, somehow authority forgets this bedrock principle, and we end up with an Inquisition, a crusade, a witch trial, a gulag, a concentration camp, or a Red Scare.
Some claim a fair trade-off exists between due process and national security. They are dead wrong. Lack of due process always makes a society less safe. Without due process, the innocent will be locked up and criminals will always go free. To get tough on crime, we must be tough on due process. That way, we know that the truly guilty are punished. To get tough on terror, we must have scrupulous due process, and we must have probing intelligence that spares no one.
The very people who have advocated getting tough on crime have also advocated soft inquiries into intelligence failures. We must have absolutely reliable intelligence that will stand up to international scrutiny. The folly of simply pointing a finger and claiming "weapons of mass destruction" has led us down the path into great insecurity.
Indeed, if we accuse a criminal of the wrong crime, the criminal is going to get off, and the whole process will become a laughingstock, as Sen. McCarthy did. The United States at the time had genuine security concerns that were hugely set back by McCarthy's arrogant abuse of power and reckless disregard for due process.
American policy makers need to see "Good Night, And Good Luck." They need to ask, do we want the rule of law, or do we want scapegoating? Due process is our best guarantee of security, and it is time we all knew it.
Jim Murtagh is a doctor of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine based in Atlanta.