We in Washington are accustomed to the petty scandals of Washington politics. However, there is another category of offenses, described by the French poet Andre Chenier as “les crimes puissants qui font trembler les lois,” crimes so great that they make the laws themselves tremble.
We know what to do with someone caught misappropriating funds. But, when we are confronted with evidence of a systematic attempt to undermine the very political system itself, we recoil in a general failure of imagination and nerve.
We know that certain individuals and certain groups covet such immense power for either personal or ideological reasons. But we somehow suppose that those ambitions will be pursued within the confines of our laws and within the confines of the values of our society and our democratic political system. . . .
[I]f those who operate politically beyond the law are deft enough and determined enough, they can learn to benefit from our often false sense of confidence in this regard. For there is a natural presumption on the part of those of us who deem ourselves to be politically sophisticated that “no one would actually dare to do such a thing.”
Most mere observers are, therefore, very much disposed toward misbelief and are, therefore, willing to disregard evidence that is directly presented to them—and even to construct alternative explanations for events that seem just too distasteful to want to believe. This all-too-human propensity provides just the margin of safety that is needed by those who would dare to under take what would otherwise be regarded as just too immensely a risky undertaking to attempt.
For example, when the Iran-Contra scandal exploded in 1986, both the Congress and the national mainstream media pulled up short. . . . The laws trembled at the prospect of a political trial that threatened to shatter the compact of trust between the rulers and the ruled, a compact that was the foundation upon which the very law itself rested.
The lesson was clear: accountability declines as the magnitude of the crime and the power of those charged increase.