“You can’t handle the truth!” Jack Nicholson shouted at Tom Cruise during the climactic court-martial scene in the movie “A Few Good Men.”
Caught in a lie that exposed his “above-the-law” mentality, Nicholson’s character, Col. Nathan Jessup, justifies his lawlessness by declaring, “I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it!”
It’s a riveting scene, pitting security against the rule of law. But before agreeing with Jessup that lawfulness conflicts with freedom, think again. Truthfulness and equality under the law are essential to freedom, justice and the trust that binds civil society.
Because humans are inclined to believe their ends are virtuous enough to justify immoral means, America’s founders designed a liberty-preserving system to thwart excessive government power.
Their revolutionary principles included limited government, popular consent and human equality, meaning no one - not a president, congressman, IRS official or Bureau of Land Management agent -- can be the ruler over another because the government's power is citizen-derived.
If this sounds quaint and obsolete, it's because the federal executive branch bureaucracy has grown so huge and unaccountable.
Dwarfing the other two branches, the bureaucracy’s 15 cabinet departments, 452 independent agencies and 2,721,000 managers and employees generate 26,000-plus pages of new regulations annually.
This hydra-headed bureaucracy can be deployed against any citizen virtually with impunity. When weaponized to target and stifle divergent opinions, its capacity to wreak havoc in daily lives should terrify every American, for where equality under the law goes, so goes freedom.
Whereas half of Americans viewed the government as a protector of individual liberty in December 2012, an April 2014 Rasmussen poll found only one in five now do. Three in five of those surveyed believe government threatens liberty.
This week, the IRS is reeling from reports it gave bonuses to 1,100 employees who didn’t pay their taxes, meaning taxpayers must fund rewards for tax collectors who are also tax cheats.
This revelation comes amid the ongoing congressional investigation of the IRS targeting scandal in which the tax agency harassed Tea Party and conservative non-profits by unfairly applying tax-exemption laws and abusing its power.
Documents recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act prompted Watergate sleuth Bob Woodward to opine that “there's obviously something there” at the IRS, adding, it's “very unusual ... for the president to. ... [s]ay there is not a smidgeon of evidence [of corruption] here.”
Despite the stone wall with which the IRS has confronted congressional investigators, we know the ex-chief of the IRS tax-exempt unit, Lois Lerner, was the lynchpin in a multi-agency effort to use the federal machinery to silence advocates of limited government.
After twice refusing to answer congressional questions, Lerner is likely to soon be found in contempt of Congress.
Nevertheless, her emails reveal that the day before apologizing for the IRS's “inexcusable” targeting of conservative groups, she was coordinating with Justice Department officials to criminally prosecute those same improperly targeted organizations.
We also know elected Democrats encouraged the discrimination, including Rep. Elijah Cummings, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's ranking minority member.
Calling the congressional investigation a witch-hunt, Cummings wants the case closed, an outcome virtually assured by the appointment of long-time Obama donor Barbara Bosserman to a key role in the Justice Department's review of the IRS.
Among the scores of organizations trapped in the government’s dragnet was “True the Vote,” a Houston, Texas-based anti- vote fraud watchdog founded by Catherine Engelbrecht.
Engelbrecht's organization trains poll workers, registers voters, and supports a voter ID requirement. In 2010, it applied to the IRS for the same non-profit status that similar social welfare organizations routinely obtain.
Since then, Engelbrecht, her business, nonprofit organizations and family have endured an administrative Star Chamber, suffering time-consuming, expensive, high-pressure scrutiny by a syndicate of government agencies, including the FBI and the IRS, as well as Cummings.
In congressional testimony earlier this year, Englebrecht evoked Patrick Henry’s “liberty or death” oration, declaring, “I will not ask for permission to exercise my constitutional rights.”
Refusing to rest until justice is served, she’s filed an ethics complaint against Cummings and a lawsuit against the IRS.
Recall that, as Jessup learned upon his arrest, justice requires accountability, which depends on an active and independent news media, an informed citizenry and a shared belief that the truth and the rule of law matter.
All were present during Watergate, though not today. Instead, we depend on embattled citizens like Englebrecht to fight for the truth in a system that decrees the law must apply equally to everyone, even government officials.
That’s why President Lincoln believed, “If given the truth, (Americans) can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”
Though we can’t vote out bureaucrats, shouldn’t we insist that politicians stop giving ever more power to those who, like Jessup, believe they’re above the law?Melanie Sturm is an opinion columnist with the Aspen Times.