"The It Could Be Me Factor"

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ROBERT WRIGHTThe nation's opinion leaders continue to brood over the nation'sreluctance to follow them. For months, politicians andcommentators have doggedly tried to transmit their indignationabout Bill Clinton to the hinterland. It's slow going. There's alot of indifference out there, lamented Bill Bennett, the deanof Washington outrage, during a recent TV appearance.Indifference? That's one theory. Another is--imagination.Imagination, after all, is our basic moral gauge. If you canimagine yourself doing what someone else has been caught doing,it's hard to recommend the death penalty.I'm not saying that most Americans daydream about sex in the OvalOffice. I'm saying that many Americans have enough experiencewith temptation, addiction in one sense or another and the littlelies that become big ones to look at President Clinton and say,There but for the grace of God go I. As a Democrat in Congresshas put it, People understand human frailty better thanpolitical pundits do.An expansive moral imagination has much to recommend it--includingthe endorsement of Jesus Christ. (Among the tactical advantagesof Clinton's prayer breakfast was getting reporters to quoteclergy quoting Scripture: He that is without sin, let him firstcast a stone.) Still, however humane a generous imagination maybe, it poses a problem: Once started, where does it stop?Granted, most Americans don't have trouble setting limits onforgiveness. They can't imagine themselves being, say, bankrobbers. So it's off to jail with bank robbers--justice has beenserved! But however emotionally easy it is to condemn agarden-variety criminal while forgiving an errant President, isit logically defensible?After all, imagining ourselves in someone else's shoes oftentakes poetic license. Many women, mulling Clinton's sins, don'task how they would have acted in his situation but how they wouldhave acted if burdened with male genes--and, perhaps, with a senseof entitlement inflated by years of alpha maledom. Maybe, forenhanced accuracy, some women throw in any distinctive Clintongenes for large appetite--and maybe even formative childhoodexperiences. (He is reported to have once recalled being the fatboy in the Big Boy jeans, before his rising social staturestarted turning ladies' heads.)PAGE 1  |  
 
Anyway, whether or not women in Peoria have performed suchelaborate thought experiments, people often take account of aperpetrator's genetic and environmental factors. The troubledchild's genes for hyperactivity or his history of parental abuseearn him some leniency. To the extent that our knowledge allows,we try to ask, What if we really were in his shoes?But of course, if you were literally in his shoes, you'd be himand would make the same choices. If you had been born with a bankrobber's genes, into a bank robber's environment, then youpresumably would have become a bank robber. Genes andenvironment, so far as science can tell, are all there is.That's the trouble with letting your imagination off its leash.An untrammeled imagination--an imagination of true, unblinkingclarity--drives home an uncomfortable point: it is always in somesense unfair for people to send other people to prison. There goall of us but for the grace of God.Of course, as a practical matter, we have to send people toprison. So the moral imagination, followed to its logicalconclusion, short-circuits, becoming its own reductio adabsurdum. It begins by extending our empathy to Clinton but inthe end leaves us weighing his fate without dwelling on hisfrailty, because if human frailty were an excuse, the streetswould be full of robbers.What we're left with, then, is a purely consequentialist ethics:What are the effects of punishing Clinton? Now that we're in themiddle of this awful morality play, what is the most productiveway for it to end? What lessons do we want to teach--aboutPresidents, about prosecutors, about what's right and wrong,what's public and private?Such questions are beyond the scope of this inquiry. (There's asentence you haven't heard in Washington lately.) But anotherquestion is admissible: Why do Washington opinion leaders seem tohave more trouble than average Americans imagining themselves inClinton's shoes? Oddly, the problem may be that they considerClinton a peer. Clinton and the politicos and the pundits allinhabit the same basic social arena. And social proximity makesdetachment difficult. It breeds rivalry and enmity, henceharshness of judgment. True, it can also breed friendship andalliance, hence leniency. But for Bill Clinton, a gladhander andan ideological chameleon, there aren't many true friends andallies left.Was all this Philosophy 101 really worth the trouble? Afterfollowing our moral imagination to its bitter logical end, don'twe find ourselves forced to do what so many opinion leaders havebeen doing all along: judging Clinton without pity?No. The point isn't really that compassion has no place in thepunishment of a President. The point is that compassion is alwaysin order--just no more for a President than for a bank robber.Harsh verdicts should always be rendered with a kind ofreluctance and regret.That's a lot to ask. Still, we can at least ask that harshverdicts not be rendered with the gleeful zeal that has beenemanating from some parts of Washington these days. In a judge, atouch of indifference isn't an altogether bad thing.  |  PAGE 2