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February 22, 2006
Cheney information delay another post 9/11 symptom
ROYAL CITY, Washington (STPNS) -- Vice President Dick Cheney's hunting mishap and the delayed release of information about the accident made for great late-night TV joke fodder, but it's also a good indicator of a pervasive and dangerous attitude that has developed in this country since 9/11.
It's an attitude that I can understand, having been a sentient adult myself on the day of the attacks. As a country, we have mourned more than the people who were killed that day. We have mourned a sense of infallibility and safety that Americans have had for generations, bought and paid for by the lives of thousands of young Americans in two world wars.
Since 9/11, we have been frantic to recapture that feeling of safety that we once enjoyed. So frantic, in fact, that many of us don't mind knowing that our government has instigated a secret spying program. We want so badly to believe our government is doing the right thing to protect us that anyone who expresses uneasiness about the Iraq war is promptly labeled "unpatriotic"; and accused of not supporting our troops, who are daily risking life and limb in a military action that we all know has no clear resolution.
Nobody believes that Mr. Cheney's hunting accident was a matter of national security, or that the Vice President thought he would be able to keep the whole incident a secret. However, there was a delay in the release of information about the accident, and White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan's indignant response to questions sparked a distasteful media frenzy.
Naturally conservatives feel the media was too quick to pounce on the veep for the delay, and took umbrage at Reuters headlines like "Cheney Victim To Leave Hospital."
But then there were news reports where Whittington's doctor described talking with Whittington in his hospital room and saying something along the lines of "He's fine. I felt like we were in my own living room, having a chat." This was of course before the injured man suffered a heart attack after one of the pellets migrated to his heart. I thought: OK, here we have a man who's nearly 80 years old that's been shot in the face and chest, and his doctor is making it sound like he accidentally dinged his thumbnail with a hammer.
I have no doubt that this was truly an accident. But Mr. Cheney is, after all, our back-up Commander-in-Chief, the Vice President of the United States. I'm just a small-town newspaper editor, but if I accidentally shot someone, I'd probably make front-page news at least somewhere in the Basin within 24 hours (I can probably even tell you in which papers, too.)
What it comes down to is this: shouldn't a person who holds one of the most powerful offices in the world be able to quickly and publicly admit to and apologize for a mistake? Let's put it another way: if one of your kids was playing sandlot ball and accidentally busted a neighbor's window, would it be OK for them to wait a couple of days to go apologize and offer to make amends?
The short answer to that, of course, is no.
That said, it really is useless to fret much about national politics. I get disgusted just like anyone else about what my mom would call "making mountains out of molehills." But journalists get upset about stuff like this for a reason.
Call it post-9/11 trauma, call it what you want, but there is a subtle, pervasive attitude in this country right now that it's perfectly OK for our elected officials to keep secrets. This is happening on a local level too. Somehow people have gotten the idea that it's desirable, even necessary, for officials to make decisions in secret.
We don't elect councils and governors and school board members and port commissioners with the understanding they'll have carte blanche to do whatever they please once elected - mainly because we don't believe that our elected officials are somehow smarter or better than we are. (Think about it: even a hairstylist has to have a license, but we don't require the President of the United States to have any qualifications or prior experience.)
We elect people because we believe they'll make sound decisions on a variety of issues. We know that as Americans, we have the right to call them up and tell them what we think, or show up to a public meeting and tell them face-to-face.
And we also expect our elected officials to be brave enough to make decisions in public.
There are all kinds of laws about open public records and clear, specific rules about how elected bodies will conduct themselves. There are fewer than a handful of reasons a board is allowed to call an executive (closed) session. Councils are not to hold secret meetings, or make decisions when they're not in official session.
Following these laws may not be easy, or comfortable, but hey, that's democracy. It wasn't designed to be easy. Sunshine laws about open meetings and records were passed by us and voted on by us because everyone knows that if they aren't obeyed, we would no longer have a system of government that's run by the people, and for the people.
And that's no secret.
Editor Lisa Leitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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