Of Moles and Squeegee Men

Now that January 20th has come and gone, the Bush League has departed from DC like unruly guests who cleaned out the liquor cabinet and the wine cellar and generally trashed the place. As we start to pick up the pieces and straighten the furniture, a question persists: should we call the cops or should we just pretend it never happened?

Many of the DC regulars want to make pretend and “just get on with things.” As Glenn Greenwald noted:

There are few viewpoints, if there are any, which trigger more fervent agreement across the political and media establishment than the view that George Bush, Dick Cheney and other top officials should not be criminally investigated, let alone prosecuted, for the various laws they have broken over the last eight years.

The reasoning for this “let bygones be bygones” comes in a variety of flavors. The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen argued that the Devil (aka Osama bin Laden) made us forget ourselves and our constitution and begin jailing people without charges and then torturing them:

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” So goes an aphorism that needs to be applied to the current debate over whether those who authorized and used torture should be prosecuted. In the very different country called Sept. 11, 2001, the answer would be a resounding no.

Cohen’s Post colleauge Ruth Marcus, on the other hand, strikes a pragmatic pose

I’m coming to the conclusion that what’s most crucial here is ensuring that these mistakes are not repeated. In the end, that may be more important than punishing those who acted wrongly in pursuit of what they thought was right.

Mr. Greenwald is outraged by this attitude because the Justice Department continues to hound the lawyer-mole who first told a New York Times reporter about Bush’s illegal NSA spying program. It certainly seems unfair to persecute an individual for revealing criminal and unconstitutional behavior at the same time pundits and politicians want to give the “evil doers” a free pass.

The New York Times’ Frank Rich also supports investigation and possible prosecution, to regain our country’s honor:

While our new president indeed must move on and address the urgent crises that cannot wait, Bush administration malfeasance can’t be merely forgotten or finessed.

Beyond the whole matter of being a nation of laws and all, Mr. Rich argues we need to address the problems of the past to gain guidance for the future:

But I would add that we need full disclosure of the more prosaic governmental corruption of the Bush years, too, for pragmatic domestic reasons. To make the policy decisions ahead of us in the economic meltdown, we must know what went wrong along the way in the executive and legislative branches alike.

Greenwald and Rich make strong points in favor of actually investigating what happened over the past eight years, and prosecuting those who broke the law. But their points are not the only – or even most – important reasons for investigation and prosecution. To understand what’s at stake here, we need to remember the squeegee men.

Back in March of 1982, The Atlantic magazine featured an article by George Kelling and James Wilson, titled “Broken Windows.” Kelling and Wilson argued that the perception of a social breakdown will lead to the reality of that breakdown:

…at the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. (It has always been fun.)

Kelling and Wilson wrote about experiments reported on by Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who arranged to have apparently abandoned vehicles parked on streets in the Bronx, NY and Palo Alto, CA. While the time frames differed, the result was the same: both cars wound up being vandalized and destroyed. Kelling and Wilson wrote:

…vandalism can occur anywhere once communal barriers—the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility—are lowered by actions that seem to signal that “no one cares.”

This article eventually led to a then-new approach to community policing in which minor offenses were dealt with thoroughly, with the idea that by discouraging disorderly behavior there would be an increase in social order. The most famous – or notorious, depending on your point of view – case of this was in New York City, where Mayor Rudy Giuliani gained fame for such tactics as cracking down on squeegee men. This approach was eventually credited with a significant decline in the general crime rate in New York City.

It’s common to believe that illegal or anti-social behavior is rooted in individual morality: good people behave in good ways, while bad people behave badly. But that’s not necessarily so. As Kelling and Wilson (and others) have found, individual behavior is often influenced by how that individual sees others behave. If boundaries are pushed and nothing happens to the wrong-doers, then the threshold for anti-social or illegal behavior shifts. If someone vandalizes a car and nothing happens, soon others will follow suit. If one Wall Street firm games the system and nothing happens, you know it’s only a matter of time before others start behaving the same way.

This is really nothing new. Who hasn’t, as a child, tried to do something because “everyone else is doing it”? And who hasn’t had their mother or father reply something to the effect: “If everyone else jumps off a cliff, are you going to jump off a cliff?” While we may tell ourselves that adults act differently, history (and the fashion industry) proves that our behavior frequently reflects that of those around us.

While it might be politically convenient to disregard any possible criminal behavior by members of the Bush administration, “letting bygone be bygones” will send a terrible message to the rest of our citizens – as well as the world. It will be saying “we don’t care” about violations of our constitution, international law, and the fundamental idea of human decency.

Ruth Marcus may wish to disregard the particulars and just ensure “that these mistakes are not repeated.” But by blithely ignoring them, we’re likely to guarantee such behavior will someday return.


About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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