When I lived and worked in Mexico, the most common complaint I heard from my Mexican friends was not about the dangers posed by narcotraffickers. The cartels were taking a break when I was there. It didn’t concern corruption, largely stemming from the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s decades-long political monopoly. Corruption was just a part of life, like air or sunshine. It wasn’t even about the petty annoyances, like the shakedown roadblocks police set up at the end of each month.
It was “impunidad.” In English, the word is “impunity,” but its connotations go far beyond the mere ability to do as one wishes without consequence. “Impunity” means to ignore not only law, but also public opinion, national interest, human rights, tradition — even good manners. It’s a blanket “get out of jail free” card, and it’s a common feature of political life south of the border.
Trouble is, burgeoning immigration and a fetish for “multiculturalism” have apparently spread this dangerous attitude to us. Time was, a prominent politician getting caught telling baldfaced lies to the public became a figure of shame and ridicule. Think Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. A president abusing his power would be exposed and hounded from office. Think Richard Nixon. And officials who refused to go along were lauded as heroes. Think Attorney General Elliott Richardson.
Early in his presidency, Ulysses S. Grant was cited for speeding by William West, a Washington, D.C. policeman. Embarrassed when he discovered whom he had stopped, West offered to forgo the fine. Grant is reputed to have said “Officer, do your duty;” he paid up. To measure how far the rot has gone, imagine Barack Obama in a similar situation.
No, those quaint notions of honor and shame have vanished. A president may now sexually harass his staff, lie about it under oath, and escape sanction. Another may use offices of government against his political enemies without being unfavorably compared to a garden variety banana-Republic tyrant — who tend to be less hypocritical about their oppressions.
Nor is Washington, D.C. unique. Witness New York’s Elliot Spitzer and Anthony Wiener, or South Carolina’s Mark Sanford.
In Colorado, we have a governor who sees nothing wrong in derailing a decades-long judicial process in service to his ultra-liberal constituency. Nor did he thwart justice in a forthright way which would place his decision before the voters next November. Instead, he pretended concern that Colorado’s death penalty had not been thoroughly discussed, insisting that “a conversation” was necessary over the fate of convicted quadruple-murderer Nathan Dunlap. It was a move calculated to avoid responsibility, and it is clear that the governor made it in expectation of impunity.
The governor and the current president have other traits in common. Both have a taste for “forcing momentous changes on narrow majorities,” both have short fuses when challenged, and both have a taste for secrecy. Governor Hickenlooper’s use of the state aircraft is a good example of the latter two.
You and I own a Beechcraft KingAir. It’s used by state officials on state business, which is sometimes justifiable — although a seven-minute flight by members of the state Wine Board might be pushing the limit. Officials can bring guests, but by law, the state must be reimbursed for their use of our aircraft.
After one such junket involving the governor, his son and a deep-pocketed political supporter, a Denver TV station began to ask questions. They were put off and their motives were questioned; they were told essentially to sit down and shut up. It took a Freedom of Information request to finally get the details, after which the governor grudgingly reimbursed the state for his son’s travel. Shortly thereafter, the ‘Looper placed flight records for our aircraft out of reach of further FOI requests. We’ll just have to take his word for it …
There’s more to this than the banality of elected officials flaunting their power, ignoring their constituents and laughing in our faces all the way to the bank. The idea that politicians can do as they please as long as they can buy enough votes, commit enough political fraud, or incite enough hatred to gain the backing of the uninformed, the unengaged and the unsophisticated is as old as Alcebiades of Athens and the Graccii of Rome. It never ends well for the polity involved, and rarely for the politicians — who must conjure ever greater oppressions, ever larger benefits and ever more inflammatory wrongs to maintain their grip. This breeds cynicism, and the citizen consent necessary to our democracy is ever more sullen. But politicians continue to do it, because this is the key to their power — and their impunity.
It is we who give them both. And it is long past time we stopped.
Morgan Liddick lives in Summit County.