Tell me a secret
Secrets, like sex, politics, and religion, are something we all know a lot about, but secrecy in government is another matter.
It’s true that New Mexicans live in the midst of Pueblo tribal societies that have existed for centuries with a strict code of secrecy about the core beliefs and religious practices which hold them together in well-governed groups. While only a select clan may be privy to particular secrets, the power accruing from those secrets is shared by everyone in the tribe through communal religious practices. Thus, secrecy does not corrupt.
On the other hand, in open, democratic, industrial societies like the United States, with huge diverse populations in which church and state are rigorously separated, secrecy in government can threaten a nation’s survival because it can hide what is really going on. There is a keen interest in secrecy in our country today, as witnessed in the enormous response to pop novels by authors like Dan Brown. Each of his four bestsellers deals with some aspect of codes and secrecy in our culture, whether it is the cyber-world secrecy of Digital Fortress, the historical secrecy of the Catholic Church in Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code (which everyone in the White House is said to have read), or the scientific secrecy embedded in his Deception Point. In each book the underlying message is the same: secrecy in democratic societies concentrates power in the hands of a few who possess the political, economic or technological secrets, and these elites inevitably abuse that power for their own selfish benefit at the expense of the common good.
The oligarchy rising in American democracy today is an excellent example of this tendency. Of course, newspapers and magazines sometimes “leak” a few of these government and business secrets, but we all know that media are usually forbidden from revealing the secrets currently corrupting our political and economic systems.
Judy Bachrach’s biographical article on Attorney General John Ashcroft in the February Vanity Fair might be an exception. As reported by Bachrach, Ashcroft’s belief in secret arrests and searches on secret charges (or no charges) reveals a security culture clothed in quasi-religious righteousness that should alarm the most complacent citizens of our open society.
Theologian David Griffin’s book The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11 is another recent example of a free press at work. The author lays out logical and legitimate (as opposed to spurious and conspiratorial) questions about what really happened on 9/11. Griffin’s book attempts to strip away a veil of secrecy standing between us and the truth about 9/11. It reminds one of the late Senator Patrick Moynihan’s 1999 book Secrecy:The American Experience, which concludes that since the First World War, secrecy in government has been used as much to cover up mistakes as to protect national security. Griffin’s question about 9/11 is, “Is complicity by U.S. officials the best explanation?” Given the case he presents, this is a question worth asking and finding the answer to. When all is said and done, failing to remove the veils of secrecy permeating our democratic society today could turn our dream of democracy into the nightmare of fascism, or American life could come to imitate one of Dan Brown’s pop novels.