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Jewish World Review Sept. 8, 1999 /27 Elul, 5759

Paul Greenberg

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Janet Reno's truth: She keeps changing it -- IS ANYBODY SURPRISED? Contrary to Janet Reno's earlier testimony, the FBI did use incendiary tear gas, when it attacked the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, and set off a disaster. The flammable canisters didn't cause the fire that took some 80 lives, the attorney general now assures us, just as she assured us earlier that such weapons weren't used at all.

And so it goes.

At first the attorney general said she would take responsibility for what happened to the innocent that awful day, which turned out to mean that she wouldn't. She could have resigned, but that would have been the honorable thing. And that's not done in this administration.

Instead, Janet Reno has let it be known she'd make the same decisions today as she did then, when Webb Hubbell was at her side. (He has a funny way of showing up at historic disasters.) To save the children, Janet Reno has explained, they were destroyed. Well, we all have to tell ourselves something when the truth is too awful to be faced.

It is always someone else who failed to take precautions, who overlooked the relevant fact, who failed to do our job, who provided the faulty information on which our otherwise perfectly fine decision was based. We just work here.

And the unforgivable sin is to hold those of us who only bear the responsibility for these decisions responsible.

Have you noticed? The gritty patina of incompetence that covers so much of modern, computerized, legalized life is now matched by a finer, deeper deposit of moral incompetence within.

Perhaps if we keep chipping away at that inner layer of moral irresponsibility, the outer layer of incompetence will go with it.

Now our attorney general says she is determined to get to "the truth'' about what happened that terrible day at Waco, but will the truth she comes up with this time be any more reliable than the truth she swore she was telling before?

The very idea of The Truth seems to have faded over the years into a succession of truths that aren't. The country may get explanations, spin or today's truth . . . but the notion that we are going to get The Truth out of this administration grows increasingly fanciful. Just as the idea of its leaders taking responsibility does.

It will all turn out to be somebody else's fault, somebody else's look-out, probably the FBI's in this case. Besides, interest fades. Maybe in 1993 all this was shocking; today it's tiresome. So does cynicism give way to boredom at the tail end of this administration. (L-rd, let it be over soon.)

Long before it became apparent that Janet Reno was admirably living with Parkinson's, there was something frighteningly affectless in her discussion of the disaster at Waco. As if those women and children had been crash dummies in some kind of unfortunate experiment.

The same lack of any personal responsibility for her department would become apparent in one bungled investigation and non-investigation after another. Nuclear secrets are mislaid, and no one seems to notice for years. Money changes hands at the White House. The law is brazenly ignored. Witnesses flee by the scores, and the Justice Department seems unable to find them. A president lies day after day and month after month to cover up the false testimony he's given in a crass attempt to obstruct the judicial process. The FBI bungles one investigation after another, but through it all our own Ms. Magoo hears no evil, sees no evil and speaks ... of getting to the truth.

This attorney general continues to be a boon for conspiracy theorists. Every time she changes her story, their old suspicions are refueled. Lest we forget, the Treasury Department did an honest, competent investigation of its role in the horrors at Waco and delivered a scathing report that led to real reform. Because the Justice Department whitewashed its role, the deepest suspicions will always still linger.

For how long has the truth about the use of incendiary gas at Waco been hidden? Does anyone really expect an attorney general in this administration to come up with anything but another minimalizing, self-serving rationale and call it, yes, The Truth? The word, the concept, was hollowed out years ago. After all, our attorney general is only human, and all of us, when confronted with our responsibility for certain things, would really rather not be.

It is the rare commander who, having presided over a debacle, can, like Lee at Gettysburg, say simply, "This is all my fault,'' and offer his resignation.

It is the rare leader who, having made all the preparations for a great invasion, can prepare a communique, as Dwight Eisenhower did the day before Normandy, taking personal responsibility should the assault fail.

Once we looked for such leaders at the highest levels, expecting character to tell. Now scruples seem quaint, unsophisticated, quirky -- a disqualification, really.

Take responsibility for one's failures? For what others we were supposed to supervise did or failed to do? Accept the blame for what one knew or should have known? Unthinkable. It's all just a game, isn't it? It's not as if it were anything personal, like honor. What an outmoded concept.

The object of the game is simply to survive, to pretend nothing's wrong, and deliver speeches before the American Bar Association -- speeches divorced from the personal record of the speaker. As if that were possible. But no one is supposed to notice the glaring disconnect. Or at least not comment on it.

Today our leaders may be impeached, but they never resign. That would require an act of personal responsibility -- rather than one more political statement.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate