A Time to Ask ‘Who Can We Trust?’

The Monterey County Herald, March 10, 2002
By Leon E. Panetta

Trust is defined by the dictionary as “firm reliance on the integrity, ability or character of a person.”

This “reliance” on others is the glue that holds our civilization together. It is the key value of human interaction and survival from birth to death. And it is the foundation of a free and democratic government.

And yet trust is so fragile that we often excuse those who break that bond. Bitter experience tells us that too often the darker forces of our being—hate, greed, fear, selfishness, deceit and other human weaknesses—control our destiny and that’s just part of life.

But what concerns me today is that more and more of those basic relationships that we take for granted as trustworthy are crumbling before our eyes and it raises the question “who can we trust?” Consider these examples:

  • When families turn the bodies of their loved ones over to a funeral home for cremation, they have every right to believe that the ashes they receive will be the last treasured remains of that family member. Wrong. In a little rural town in Georgia, more than 300 bodies were stacked in sheds and shallow graves, and family members were given burnt wood chips instead of their loved ones. The absence of laws in many states to control this kind of horrible fraud attests to the fact that people trusted those responsible to properly honor the dead. No more.
  • When employees were urged not only to hold on to Enron stock that represented the principal assets of their retirement fund but to buy even more, they trusted that the executives doing the talking had some degree of loyalty to the future security of their employees and families. Wrong. Even while speeches were being made, the key executives were selling their stock and bailing out of a business they knew was headed for the biggest corporate bankruptcy in history. Even more disturbing is the recent revelation that in part because of the employees buying stock and keeping the price artificially high, it triggered some $300 billion in bonuses for the top executives. So who can now blame employees who no longer will rely on the integrity and word of their employers?
  • And speaking of “integrity,” if there is one group of professionals that built their entire reputation on trust, it was certified public accountants. Surely, the largest and most reputable accounting firms in the nation would be the first to detect fraud and mismanagement in a Fortune 500 company. Wrong again. Arthur Andersen, one of the largest accounting firms in the nation, is now settling investor lawsuits because of its failure to properly audit the schemes that cost investors hundreds of millions of dollars. Instead of trust, it is likely that the auditors themselves will now be audited.
  • In war, we acknowledge that truth can be the first casualty. Often times to protect the security of our forces, details are withheld from the public to hopefully ensure the success of the mission. But we also trust that in the end, war correspondents will be able to cover the war and we will be told what really happened. Wrong. A war correspondent, Doug Struck of The Washington Post, reached a remote spot in Afghanistan to track down reports that a U.S. Hellfire missile targeting al Qaida operatives had instead killed innocent villagers. Struck was held at gunpoint by U.S. soldiers. Their commander told him, “If you go further, you would be shot.” Once he wrote of the incident, a Pentagon spokesman tried to discredit his story. They later admitted the mistake. Add to this the Pentagon’s failed effort to establish an Office of Strategic Influence that would deliberately put out false news stories as part of the war effort, and one can understand why the public might be a little suspicious of the so-called “official” reports from the war front.
  • But if trust is important to matters affecting our loved ones, our retirement security, our businesses and our military actions, it is absolutely essential to our religious faith. Trust in God and in the morality of those who do God’s work on earth is fundamental to any religion. Of course there are human failings in any faith that date back to the times of the Borgias and yet we trust that any church will do everything possible to protect the faithful from those who would abuse them or their children. Wrong.

The revelation that the Catholic Church paid off families whose children had been abused by priests in exchange for their silence and then deliberately reassigned those priests to other parishes where they could endanger other children is an outrage. As a Catholic, I know there are many good and decent priests who faithfully and morally serve the Church. But the failure of some in the hierarchy to take strong disciplinary and legal action against priests who abused children undermines the fundamental trust that supports faith itself.

So the question is, “Who can we trust anymore?” Are all of these examples to be excused as just part of life? Should we just forget them and move on? Or is all of this a symptom of a greater failing in our society?

Trust is a basic value that we have to teach our children. If we fail to be outraged or discipline those who would violate a sacred trust in our society, our children will soon learn from our own ambivalence that trust is not that important. If we allow television, movies and the Internet to do our teaching for us, then we should not be surprised if those glorified for ripping off rather than respecting the system become the role models for our children. If we as a society cheapen down the word “trust” as if it’s a human failing rather than a strength, our children will learn to excuse the failure of integrity and character as just part of life in the 21st century.

But if instead we make clear that trust is an important measure of who we are and who we can be, I believe we can make a difference. On Sept. 11, when a few hundred firefighters raced up the stairs of two burning towers to almost certain death, they restored our trust that there are those who will do the right thing under the toughest circumstances. Surely, their sacrifice was not in vain if we believe and convince others that that kind of trust can be reflected in ourselves, our society and our faith. So, “who can we trust?” Before we answer that, we have to first trust ourselves to do the right thing.

LEON PANETTA, is a former congressman and White House Chief of Staff whose column appears regularly in Commentary. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside, CA 93955.

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