America's New Year's Resolution: A Return to Integrity

As I read coverage of the unpublished 513-page account of the American-led reconstruction of Iraq, a wave of sad recognition washed over me. The narrative thread of how a $100 billion effort to "save" Iraq became a giant save-your-own-ass bureaucracy was one that I had seen repeatedly in the news recently. A depressingly familiar story.

I'm not just talking about the story of botched humanitarian intervention. I'm talking about the story of hubris on a grand, immoral scale. It begins with some characteristic acts of a swollen ego -- inflated numbers and quick-draw decision-making. The story builds tension as the protagonists lose perspective, a sense of responsibility to others, and a commitment to the truth. And then it ends -- sometimes in a government bailout deus ex machina, sometimes in a collective shrug by the embarrassed American people, and all too often in the suffering of innocent people.

It's time for a return to integrity.

We have lost our moral way in this country. We have let the hype of humanitarian intervention -- the view of Americans as caped crusaders swooping in to save tyrannized foreigners -- drown out our commitment to helping others humbly and pragmatically. We have let the mystique of big markets and fast money woo us into looking the other way when corporate execs invented their bottom line. And we have let the American dream put us to sleep when we should have been wide awake about too-good-to-be-true mortgages.

Too many of us have stood by as our government has sent mostly young, low-income people to fight a "war on terror" -- as if terror were a definable target in a discrete location. As if this weren't bad enough, we've also stood by as those same people returned -- psychologically and physically maimed -- and pretended that we were providing them with enough resources to heal, just as we pretend that the mission is accomplished or the war winnable or evil extinguishable.

We have lost a sense of reality. The era of smoke and mirrors may have been most egregiously symbolized by President Bush in a flight suit, but the delusion has worn so many other guises: CEOs of the 500 biggest U.S. corporations who made an average of $12.8 million each last year, shady mortgage brokers who preyed on women craving a home of their own, bureaucrats at the United States Agency for International Development who basically invented budgets without talking to experts or doing any on-the-ground research for the rebuilding of Iraq's infrastructure. After years of living in fantasy land, reality has rained down.

We have lost a system of accountability. Who was watching the CEOs as they inflated their year-end reports? Who was watching the brokers as they slipped astronomical interest rates into contracts in miniscule print? Who was watching as our government paid $117 billion, $50 billion of it our tax money, to restore mobile-phone service -- but not electricity or drinking water -- to prewar levels in Iraq? Who was watching as we allowed private contractors like Blackwater to take over military duties?

Far too often, there has been deadening silence where there should have been a deafening roar.

And yet, I can hear the rumble coming.

On Dec. 2, the 240 workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago refused to leave without a fight for their right to 60 days of severance pay and earned vacation time. And they won, setting a new standard for employer accountability in these difficult times.

On Dec. 8, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed its case against five Blackwater guards. The case was largely established by one brave private, Jeremy P. Ridgeway of California, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter and told the truth about what he saw on Sept. 16, 2007, in Nisour Square: the murder of 17 Iraqi people. In the Justice Department's efforts to prosecute these men, as well as in Ridgeway's courageous testimony, a commitment to integrity is renewed.

On Dec. 9, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois was arrested and charged with conspiracy and soliciting bribes. Transcripts of his expletive-filled phone conversations hit the Internet and the airwaves, sounding like the last desperate breath of this age of corruption, greed, and immorality.

And on Dec. 14, an Iraqi journalist took off his shoes and hurled them at President Bush's head, turning himself into a folk hero overnight. The public embrace of his colorful outrage stands as one more sign that the world's people are fed up and aren't going to take it anymore.

As we look forward to President Bush's long-overdue departure and the dawn of a new year and new administration, let's all make a grand and necessary resolution. We must return to integrity and put pressure on our government and corporate leaders, our employers and colleagues, to do the same. We must, in the words of feminist author and activist Eve Ensler, "See what we see, say what we say, and know what we know." We must -- as the workers of Republic Windows and Doors and Jeremy P. Ridgeway did -- hold one another accountable to our highest selves.

The other shoe has officially dropped.