Accountability made a comeback this week. Don’t get used to it. | Helen Ubiñas
That’s the thing with accountability these days. Even when it does make a welcome, if brief, appearance, it almost always comes with caveats.
I thought the idea of accountability — you know, people facing consequences for their actions — was dead.
We’ve seen so many basic pillars of our society crumble away over the last few years: truth, decency, morality.
So you can imagine how surprised I was during the last week, when multiple bad actors found out they could no longer get away with ignoring rules a lot of us wouldn’t dream of breaking. Sadly, the feeling didn’t last. But before we stumble back into the darkness, let’s enjoy the few hopeful moments of the week.
We can start with Steve Bannon, once Donald Trump’s top adviser and presumably Beelzebub’s current one. On Monday, Bannon turned himself in on contempt of Congress charges for refusing to cooperate with the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Justice also came for Alex Jones, the snarling far-right conspiracy theorist/bottom feeder, and host of the web talk show InfoWars. Jones grotesquely claimed that the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre was a hoax, inspiring his followers to harass and torment parents of murdered schoolchildren. Now, he’s been found liable in a defamation lawsuit brought by the parents.
And then on Tuesday, Philadelphia union boss John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty and Councilmember Bobby Henon were found guilty of federal bribery charges after prosecutors made the case that Dougherty bought himself a steadfast sidekick by continuing to pay Henon for a union job after his election.
To which I heard many people say:
“Did not see that coming!”
That’s because we’ve grown accustomed to, even enamored of, corrupt politicians in this city, which is probably why it took a jury made up mostly of suburbanites to find these two former untouchables guilty of most of the charges against them. (And why even though Dougherty resigned as head of IBEW Local 98, Henon showed up to Council’s weekly Thursday meeting as if it were business as usual.)
“This was a real lesson in Philadelphia civics and how Philadelphia government works — and it was appalling,” said a juror who asked The Inquirer not to be identified for fear of retribution.
That juror shared something else that we need to sit with when popular politicians are called to answer for their actions.
The jury realized that “you can be good and still break the law.”
What does that mean? Well, for starters, even if you mostly like a certain politician, or think they’ve done some good, or even a lot of good, or believe it unfair that others have long gotten away with what they didn’t (that’s a big one around here), their misdeeds shouldn’t be shrugged off. Because whatever price these beloved politicians pay always pales in comparison with the price regular people do.
There were more accountability wins, too — at least before we got a gut punch Friday.
Remember the shirtless “QAnon Shaman” who wore face paint, a horned fur hat, and carried a spear while storming the U.S. Capitol? A conveniently chastened Jacob Chansley was sentenced Wednesday to 41 months in prison for his role in the attack, one of the longest sentences handed down to an insurrectionist.
And in Washington, Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar — who I’d bet didn’t get the Thanksgiving invite from relatives who took out campaign ads against him — became the first sitting House member to be censured in more than a decade. It was his punishment for tweeting a doctored anime video of himself killing a cartoon version of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and attacking a character made to look like President Biden.
Of course, the vote to strip him of his committee assignments largely fell along party lines. And afterward, Gosar registered his sincerest regret ... by reposting the video.
That’s the thing with accountability these days — even when it does make a welcome, if brief, appearance — it almost always comes with caveats.
The bad guys never get exactly what they deserve. One bad actor goes down, but there’s always plenty more bad behavior. For an example, we only need to look at the absurdity that played out in two American courtrooms: In Georgia, a white lawyer complaining about Black pastors in attendance. In Wisconsin, a white judge made a mockery of the legal system by coddling a white teenage defendant.
This is what happens when there is zero accountability. A judicial robe covers bias. A police uniform hides brutality, and an AR-15 used to shoot three men, killing two, exposes privilege.
And on Friday afternoon, zero accountability set Kyle Rittenhouse free.
Which is why we have to savor the moments when the world rights itself, even for a few moments.
As I was finishing up this column, I happened to be listening to the latest episode of Says Who?, a podcast hosted by fellow journalist (and friend) Daniel Sinker and author Maureen Johnson.
Like me, Sinker was happy about the latest good news but also realistic about what it meant.
The sentiment and radicalization behind all this bad behavior, he said, isn’t going away any time soon. It will likely only get worse. Rittenhouse’s acquittal just laid out the red carpet.
So, Johnson declared this moment “The Great Intermission.”
They both laughed that kind of hysterical laugh that slips out when people are emotionally spent but know they have no choice but to tap into a reserve because there’s more work to be done.
I recognized it because it sounded just like mine.