09/11/2012 02:24 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2012

But Officer, You've Got the Wrong Guy

As I watch from the sidelines I keep waiting for the big news about Lance Armstrong to be discussed somewhere in the primary news story about his capitulation. An important component of the story is deeply troubling, but unexplored, no matter his guilt or innocence. The press, and people I talk to, largely believe that by giving up the fight Armstrong is admitting guilt. The idea is that, surely, if he was innocent, he would continue to battle the charges against him. Yet this is wrong, deeply wrong. Forget for the moment the naive idea of being innocent before being proved guilty; I am not concerned here with legalisms. Instead, something much more nefarious is happening: in believing Armstrong is guilty because he won't fight, we are giving tremendous power to the accuser. And beyond the trivial realm of sports, that idea is extraordinarily dangerous.

Throwing an accusation is essentially cost free, but the price of defense is astronomical. That disproportionate balance is by itself reason to be cautious in yielding an advantage to the accuser, but there is yet another concern. If we shift mentally, collectively, to believing that any unanswered accusation is admission of guilt, we open the floodgates for personal destruction and chaos. We can maintain in our legal system the idea that we are innocent until proven guilty, but that that will provide no security against random charges if we the people believe the opposite. Any utterance absent any proof can become by itself evidence of guilt, and we should strive to avoid that idea at all costs. While I do not really care if Armstrong is innocent or guilty, I do care that we seem to have slipped as a society passed the threshold of putting the burden on the accused rather than the accuser. And that is truly frightening: history's worst totalitarian regimes have been founded on the idea that accusation equals guilt, against which there is, by definition, no defense. So while the sports example here is of little import, our response to the situation reveals an ugly trend that we should stop right now.