We can all list behaviors we consider sinful.
My list begins with self-righteousness, defined as moral smugness combined with a troubling lack of self-reflection and humility. Enormous harm is done by folks who are absolutely convinced that they are in possession of Truth, and that their actions–no matter how inconsistent with social or constitutional norms–are therefore justified. When self-righteous people are in positions of authority–whether they are Governors or FBI officials–their unshakable belief in their own moral superiority can undermine both liberty and democratic processes.
As Learned Hand famously put it, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.”
Which brings me to FBI Director James Comey.
As two former Deputy Attorneys General wrote in Sunday’s Washington Post, the FBI
operates under long-standing and well-established traditions limiting disclosure of ongoing investigations to the public and even to Congress, especially in a way that might be seen as influencing an election. These traditions protect the integrity of the department and the public’s confidence in its mission to take care that the laws are faithfully and impartially executed. They reflect an institutional balancing of interests, delaying disclosure and public knowledge to avoid misuse of prosecutorial power by creating unfair innuendo to which an accused party cannot properly respond.
Decades ago, the department decided that in the 60-day period before an election, the balance should be struck against even returning indictments involving individuals running for office, as well as against the disclosure of any investigative steps. The reasoning was that, however important it might be for Justice to do its job, and however important it might be for the public to know what Justice knows, because such allegations could not be adjudicated, such actions or disclosures risked undermining the political process. A memorandum reflecting this choice has been issued every four years by multiple attorneys general for a very long time, including in 2016.
It is precisely this “balancing of interests” that self-righteous people cannot understand.
The modern world, to the consternation of many people, rarely gives us a bipolar choice between good and evil, black and white. We live–like it or not–in perpetual shades of gray, a world where “on the one hand” competes with “on the other hand,” and ethical decision-making more often than not requires us to balance competing goods. Unfortunately, ambiguity is intolerable to people who live in a Manichean world where they are on the side of righteousness.
There has been an eruption of anger over Comey’s decision to make public the discovery of emails found on devices used by then-Congressman Anthony Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin, a close aide to Hillary Clinton. The criticism–much of it from Republicans within the FBI– has been harsh: not only was the disclosure inconsistent with Department of Justice traditions, not only did Comey ignore his boss, the Attorney General, who told him to abide by departmental regulations, but he admitted he didn’t know whether the emails were significant, or mostly copies of messages the Department had previously reviewed. He hadn’t seen them.
Partisans, noting that Comey is a Republican, have accused him of political motivations. Perhaps, but my reading is different. The way in which he announced the FBI’s original conclusion not to recommend charging Clinton (a result entirely unsurprising to most lawyers) provided a clue. During that press conference–itself a violation of normal procedures–he coupled the FBI’s finding that no laws had been broken with a highly offensive, unnecessary and self-serving lecture about “carelessness.”
Comey has defended his decision to inform Congress of the existence of additional emails with reasoning that reeks of self-righteousness and an unseemly focus on his own reputation–consequences to the integrity of the FBI and the Presidential campaign be damned.
As the former Attorneys General concluded,
Justice allows neither for self-aggrandizing crusaders on high horses nor for passive bureaucrats wielding rubber stamps from the shadows. It demands both humility and responsibility.
Ironically, unless I miss my guess, Comey’s utter lack of such humility has now destroyed the reputation that meant more to him than the consequences of his decision for the nation. His incredible arrogance has also probably ended his career. But in the age-old tradition of the self-righteous, he will undoubtedly consider himself a martyr.