In more traditional societies, shame and honor help govern both conduct and relationships. They hold individuals accountable to their families, to their communities, and ultimately to themselves.
That shame and honor are absent in today's Washington is everywhere apparent, and we are poorer for it. Of the many examples of this sad reality, none is more vivid than in the issues at play in this week's resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Ongoing investigations into the his role in the controversial firing of nine U.S. attorneys, and in pressing the Administration's plans to use warrantless wiretaps and engage in other infringement of civil liberties, had put Gonzales in a compromising position.
While he testified under oath, in hearings before the U.S. Senate, that he was not involved in the firings, had not sought to influence the testimony of other witnesses, did not apply pressure on others in the Administration to support the policies under investigation, or simply did not recall matters relevant to the inquiry - other facts and testimony provided by more credible witnesses show Gonzales to have been less than truthful. Because of these inconsistencies, the Inspector General of the Justice Department is conducting an investigation into whether or not Gonzales lied in his testimony - itself a crime - and whether other acts constitute criminal violations.
This is, of course, disturbing since Gonzales is the United States' highest ranking law enforcement official. But even more disturbing is that he ultimately resigned not because he lied or advanced policies that were questionable on legal or Constitutional grounds, but because he had become a political liability to the White House.
In public remarks announcing his resignation, Gonzales admitted no wrongdoing and displayed no shame. In accepting the resignation, President Bush lashed out at those who had attacked his Attorney General, saying "His good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons" and characterized his treatment as "unfair." No shame. No accountability. No honor.
But Gonzales' shame lies even deeper.
On August 28, a military court martial meeting in Fort Meade just outside Washington, the officer in charge of the interrogation center at the Abu Ghraib prison, whose lower ranking soldiers had been convicted of gross abuse of prisoners, was acquitted of criminal wrongdoing. Since Colonel Steven Jordan was the only officer so charged in this sordid affair, it now appears that, at least in the minds of the military, the Abu Ghraib file will be closed - with no senior officer found criminally responsible for the behavior that brought such pain and disgrace to so many.
With White House memos (signed by then-White House Legal Counsel Alberto Gonzales) authorizing abusive interrogation techniques and with evidence showing that the practices at Abu Ghraib were imported from Guantanamo, how can it be justified that only a handful of enlisted men and women will be held accountable for the crimes committed?
[There is, of course, a perverse irony at work in all of this. The actions at Abu Ghraib were specifically designed to violate traditional honor. Stripping men naked, forcing them into sexual acts in public and in front of women, and all the other grotesqueries captured on film were intended to humiliate, to create shame and break down the will of the captives. Herein lies the perversity of the situation. The prisoners were presumed to have honor and, therefore, to be capable of feeling shame. On the other hand, the captors and interrogators and those who gave them their orders were seen to have none: no shame and no honor.]
A few individuals have been punished, due to the international and domestic outcry that followed the release of the images from the prison. But those who wrote the memos legitimizing that behavior, those who authorized it, and those who supervised the entire sordid affair have yet to be called to account.
As White House Counsel it was Gonzales who either authorized the setting aside of the Geneva Conventions, and enabled the use of torture and other forms of inhumane and degrading treatment of captives, as well as intercepting the communication of Americans without court authorization. Even in the wake of his resignation, this connection has not been made. Republicans saw his dissembling before the Senate Committee as a distraction and a liability. Democrats, meanwhile, focused too narrowly on the Attorney General's most recent behaviors in their investigations.
It is right and proper, as some members of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees have noted, that the investigations into the Attorney General's role in the firings of the U.S. attorneys should continue. Lying before the U.S. Senate cannot be excused. Resignation cannot be the end of the matter. There must be accountability.
But, it is important to acknowledge that the shame goes deeper, and so should the accountability.