My recent thoughts about a series of investigations that have transpired over the past 30 years prompted me to write this column. Most readers will have heard of them, but few have become deeply involved in following them closely and thinking hard about the ultimate corrective action taken, or not, after all was said and done.
Bottom line: We repeatedly fail to fix fundamental causes of much of anything, which leads to similar problems in the future and thus more mistakes and investigations.
“Tailhook,” an investigation into sexual/social matters within the naval aviation community, took place in the early 1990s. Some time later, the Navy opened the “Fat Leonard” investigation (seven years ago), and it is still ongoing. About four or so years ago, we encountered the investigation into events at Benghazi. About two years ago, the Navy also began an investigation into causes of multiple collisions of naval vessels in the Western Pacific Fleet, 7th Fleet, and that investigation is very much still ongoing. Added to that list, I include the ongoing Mueller investigation into activities in the highest levels of American government.
It’s a list to consider and then ask: Have we really fixed anything?
My conclusion is an emphatic “no,” we have neither learned nor fixed many fundamental questions that lie at the heart of all those investigations. In the broadest sense, investigations failed for whatever reason to unequivocally identify each and every individual responsible for mistakes and then determine exactly why they made such mistakes. Without that knowledge, effective corrective action will never be completed.
Such a statement leads to the consideration of justice. What is justice? I offer that justice means the people responsible for mistakes are clearly and carefully identified, and effective correction is then taken. In that sense, real justice means revealing the real truth of a given matter, and fixing the causes.
Most believe punishment is part of justice. Consider that punishment is an act separate from justice. Once the truth is fully understood, punishment (fines, social disgrace, jail or even death) is merely an act to prevent that person from doing the same again and a warning to others not to do so as well. Punishment is deterrence but not the real truth in a given matter.
What if punishment impedes the quest for the truth? In a given incident, during an investigation, people are compelled to lie, spin, stretch the truth, hire a lawyer, or demand almost endless due process in order to avoid punishment.
Remove punishment from any consideration, then all concerned can be honest and speak the truth, in fact the whole truth in a given matter. Just imagine doing an intense, expensive investigation into any matter, national down to very personal for individuals, when everyone actually spoke or wrote the complete truth, as they honestly saw it, believed it to be such, the truth.
How fast could we then actually discover the full truth and then move to prevent the same mistakes again?
Only in heaven will that happen, I suppose, but it is something else to consider as we try to deal with investigations, due process and a host of other matters.
Who really caused Tailhook, Fat Leonard, Benghazi, collisions and interference in elections? We still have no idea who was responsible for each of those events, and without really knowing who was responsible, we will never implement full and effective corrective action to have confidence such mistakes will not happen again.
In that sense, our American government, and thus we the people, are afraid of the truth and put up all sorts of roadblocks to finding same.
I once asked an investigative reporter and author of fame, “How do we stop doing crazy things nationally?” I asked that question after reading another of his books about another presidential administration making big mistakes.
His reply was simple, yet profound: “Always tell the truth.”
I would add that doing so, total honesty with yourself is a good place to start.
Anson Burlingame lives in Joplin.