How many generations of American children have been taught honesty and responsibility by way of the mythic example of the young George Washington? "Father," he said bravely, when confronted with the charge of chopping down the cherry tree, "I did it ... I cannot tell a lie!" There was no denying; no weaseling; no blaming the other guy. It was to be the template for the new nation's character; the behavior on which we would model our moral standards.
Lately, though, owning up and standing tall are in short supply. In Washington, lines of corporate moguls stretch around the block. They either take the Fifth, or deny that they had any knowledge of the financial chicaneries that brought their firms to ruin and the American economy to its knees. Auditors cry they were left in the dark; regulators didn't have the right information; board directors were out of town that day. Washington, the man, weeps in his grave.
Across the hall from where the businessmen dissemble, Congres-sman Jim Traficant cuts a pathetic figure as his colleagues vote to expel him from the job he has held for nine terms. Standing alone in the well of the House of Representatives, he is, at turns, profane, whiny and rambling, but always self-aggrandizing and belligerent; flatly denying the charges that led to his recent conviction for bribery, corruption and racketeering.
He isn't guilty, he maintains. He's a victim; the accusations against him are trumped up; the judge is biased; the witnesses are crooked; they're all out to get him, because he's different from the rest. Never a hint of responsibility or remorse. Not a glimmer of recognition that he may have done what he says he didn't do. George sheds another tear.
In a West Palm Beach courtroom, José Guillermo García, El Salvador's defense minister at the time of its brutal civil war some 20 years ago, and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, the head of its National Guard, sit and listen to charges of atrocities committed by soldiers under their command. Three victim/plaintiffs give graphic testimony of beatings, gang rapes and other forms of torture by El Salvador's military during the 12-year war which took 75,000 lives.
The generals deny the charges. They had no knowledge of the crimes described in the lawsuit and even if they did, they had given orders that they would not tolerate torture. Besides, it was a difficult and chaotic time and their soldiers were unruly.
One victim, Juan Romagoza, a doctor who ran a health program in the countryside, testifies that he had been hanged by wires wrapped around his fingers and subjected to electrical shocks to his genitals. He weeps and points to General Vides, saying he saw him in the torture chamber at the National Guard headquarters.
No matter. The generals will appeal their convictions and the $54.6 million that the jury says they owe their victims. They want to remain in the U.S., living out their comfortable lives in the land of plenty and indifferent memory. George groans at the foreign entanglements that have dragged our country's soul through such slime and deceit.
In Alexandria, Va., on the other side of the Potomac, another scene is taking place in another courtroom. John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban," is standing before U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, recounting the crimes that will require him to spend the next two decades in jail.
Lindh stands erect, facing the judge: "I provided my services as a soldier to the Taliban last year from about August to November. During the course of doing so, I carried a rifle and two grenades. And I did so knowingly and willingly ... I plead guilty, sir."
Never mind that the 20-year-old joined the Taliban because he was a devout Muslim who believed he would be fighting their secular enemies within Afghanistan; or that he became a member before Sept. 11 (back when our own government was still trying to negotiate with the Taliban for an oil pipeline through Afghanistan); or that he never fired his rifle at Americans.
A pathetic loser who screwed up in the wrong place at the wrong time, or an evil enemy of the republic who should be hanged for treason? We may never know. But for a moment, old George stops sobbing and looks his way. Admiring the young man's courage in accepting the consequences of his wayward actions and noting the rarity of the occasion, the father of our country sighs softly. The hint of a smile plays across his lips.