SAMMY SOSA'S bat. Martha Stewart's indictment. The New York Times editors. Hillary Clinton's book. It is a season of fallibility, and what do you make of it? The temptation is to add those names to the list of lesser beings, persons who fall short of the standards to which you so faithfully adhere. But something nags. When the icons of perfection crack, why does something split in you? The greatest baseball player. The most sophisticated homemaker. The newspaper of record. The first family. And who are you again?
No, you would not normally cheat in a sport or knowingly break the law. You would not give short shrift to norms or lie to the country. There are such things as common decency and moral fiber. Every parent knows what it is to demand ethical striving of a child, but every parent knows also the chill on the neck that comes with the recognition that the child assumes the parent's moral perfection. The fact that you might not consciously lie to another does not mean that you do not lie to yourself. And nothing puts you more efficiently in touch with your history of self-deception than the worshipful eyes of a child who thinks you can do no wrong.
What happens when you, too, are revealed as fallible? It is a question for you, for your family - and for your nation. Human beings, implicitly aware of their own flaws, seem to have a constitutional urge to attribute flawlessness to a chosen elite. That urge explains the political submission to monarchs and oligarchs. It explains religious deference to priests. It explains the bourgeois assumption that, in F. Scott Fitzgerald's phrase, the rich ''are different from you and me.'' It explains the cult of celebrity. And it explains the exceedingly dangerous idea at the heart of fascism that some human beings are better than others.
Democracy is a political system that assumes, positively, that all citizens are equally worthy of responsibility for the community. But a negative assumption informs the idea, too - namely, that all citizens are equally inclined to the self-deception that leads to the deceit of others. That is why democracy is characterized not only by freedoms but by checks and balances, what might be called a structure of suspicion. Because everyone is known to be capable of abusing power, no one is permitted to exercise power without restriction, accountability, and the regular test of election. The universality of fallibility is what the Biblical tradition labels ''original sin,'' and everyone is born with it. Alas, that is the first way in which you are equal to everyone else.
One of the manifestations of this community-wide imperfection is the impulse to deny it. You do that by elevating some members of the community and denigrating others. The severest denigration is reserved, of course, for those who were first elevated, which is why Sosa, Stewart, and The New York Times fall with such a thud. If culprits are always wide-eyed with surprise when they are found out, it is because their inevitable claim that they did not know what they were doing is the exact truth. The great mystery of evil lies in the way people who choose it think they are doing something good. That is true of so-called ''venial sins,'' but it is also true of the most heinous crimes in history. The Nazis could embark on a program of anti-Jewish genocide, and Germans could acquiesce in it, only because the elimination of Jews could be seen as a positive turn (''racial purity'') in human evolution.
If the United States government is embarked today, as many fear, on a dangerous violation of the fragile international order, it has chosen that course not out of patently vile motives - greed for oil, lust for power - but out of an earnest attempt to protect that self-same order. The Bush administration is aiming for what it thinks of as virtue. The check on hubris comes with the sure knowledge that every regime in history has so defined its purpose.
A line is crossed, however, when the fulfillment of such purpose is pursued with state-sponsored violence. The official act of killing is an assertion of absolute domination, requiring, in the case of a democracy, the obliteration of its normal self-criticism. Human beings always go to war armed first with self-deception and second with a sense of high virtue. Doubt is incompatible with war, which is why war is the natural mode of dictatorship. War makes an implicit claim to infallibility that citizens of a democracy have by definition rejected. That is why in wartime, as now in the United States, democratic structures are easily undermined.
Sammy Sosa, Martha Stewart. The New York Times. Their fallibility reminds you of yours. Universal fallibility reminds you of why democracy matters, why war is wrong, and why nonviolence must come.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
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