The Limits of Rolling Heads

When the news reached saturation levels that the Internal Revenue Service had treated right-wing groups unfairly in their submissions for tax-exempt status, one demand by those outraged by the story rung as loudly and clearly as any other.

“Somebody had better get fired for this!”

It didn’t take long for that to happen.  Last Wednesday, with Congressional and media attention on the IRS affair hitting critical mass, the agency’s acting commissioner, Steven T. Miller, submitted his resignation.  He has been bouncing in and out of Congressional hearings ever since.

The controversy continues, and calls for others to resign or be sacked have been an integral part of the conversation.  The ridding of Miller, the big cheese, was seen less as a central corrective to the scandal and more as a necessary first step.  There was little (if anything) in the way of protests to his forced departure from the IRS; it was accepted as inevitable, with a sigh and a shrug.

The comedian Lewis Black refers to this phenomenon as “The Tough Shit Rule”:  When an organization is found to have engaged in egregious behavior, responsibility has to begin at the top, and the boss has got to go.  “It’s not a question of blame,” Black clarified.  “It’s just the way it is.”

Indeed it is.  But should it be?  Is accountability for its own sake really worth the effort?  More to the point, is it fair?

The IRS situation is as follows:  Before his unceremonious bouncing this week, Miller had served as the agency’s acting commissioner since November 2012, when then-commissioner Douglas Schulman stepped down as his tenure drew to a close.  (Commissioners serve a five-year term, following a nomination by the president and confirmation by the Senate.)

As the chronology of the present scandal makes clear, none of the relevant wrongdoing occurred on Miller’s watch.  To the extent that was aware of such shenanigans during his brief reign, he cannot be blamed for either ordering or perpetuating them, and comes awfully close to seeming like an old-fashioned fall guy—a placeholder with no real purpose except to absorb the blows intended for others.

In instances such as this, we find ourselves in a tight spot:  We want to get to the bottom of things, but doing so can take a dreadfully long time and, doggone it, somebody’s gotta pay in the meanwhile.  Heads must roll.

The impulse is a good one, and often borne out by history.  Costa-Gavras’ excellent 1969 film Z, based on real events, is all about how the low-level goons who carried out the assassination of a political opposition leader were swiftly rounded up and locked away, while the upper-level government officials who actually ordered the hit made off scot-free, literally getting away with murder.

My fear, as we consider this subject beyond the IRS, is that our desire for justice and accountability can run so deep that, in our haste, we end up firing all the wrong people, generating scapegoats while the true evildoers slip out the back door.  That we settle on targets that are convenient rather than truly guilty.

In the case of Watergate—a genuine abuse of power to which some have ludicrously compared the IRS debacle in recent days—the burglars who got the whole mess started and the president who covered it up were, at long last, exposed and brought to account.  However, more than two years elapsed from the break-in to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.  The gears of justice grind slowly.

A further complication—as suggested by the IRS case—is that the labyrinthine, often disorganized nature of the executive branch that allowed Nixon to survive for so long can, conversely, allow wrongdoing to fester underfoot without the man at the top ever knowing about it at all.  Indeed, President Ronald Reagan managed to skirt culpability in the Iran-Contra caper by (falsely, but successfully) pleading ignorance about the whole business.

In short:  As we tend not to uncover the truth about governmental malfeasance until long after the fact, we should temper our natural desire for justice, in order that we do not inadvertently levy punishment upon those who do not actually require it.

Sometimes the head of an offending organization is responsible for the offenses that occurred therein; however, sometimes he is not.  Before we roam about waving pitchforks all willy-nilly, we ought first to establish which of these two possible scenarios is true and direct our indignation accordingly.

If we insist on being a bloodthirsty, unruly mob, let us at least be an intelligent and judicious one.

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