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Van Zandt: Our national conscience

Former FBI profiler discusses America's moral compass against the backdrop of recent events.
In this undated drivers license photo provided by the California Department of Motor Vehicles, Pamela Vitale is shown. A friend of defense attorney and TV legal pundit Daniel Horowitz said Monday, Oct. 17, 2005, police are getting closer to a break in the slaying of Horowitz's wife, Pamela Vitale. Horowitz found Vitale dead Saturday night, Oct. 15, 2005, at the entrance of the mobile home they shared on property where they were building their dream estate, authorities said. The case is being investigated as a homicide. (AP Photo/California Department of Motor Vehicles)Calif. Dept. of Motor Vehicles v

It seems to me that for the past three or four decades America’s moral compass has misplaced its sense of direction, with the magnetic north of our national conscience gone awry. When I returned from Vietnam in 1967, I was assigned to a Military Intelligence (MI) unit in Chicago. Occasionally I substituted for the MI Agent tasked with interviewing every local conscientious objector who refused to enter military service. As I listened to the reasons given by the young men who refused to go to war, I found myself understanding their reasoning. Don’t get me wrong. I believed then as I do now in my responsibility to my country. But there needs to be a reason to go to war, a reason to die, some ultimate purpose in death. Like everyone who served in time of war, I was a different person when I came home. I saw death come far too easily. Fellow Americans just like me and Vietnamese men, women and children, were dying in a war whose goals would never be achieved, but we were dying by the thousands anyway. Eventually our purpose in Vietnam (to stop the communist domino effect in Indo-China or something like that) became first mired and then lost in some unnamed remote rice paddy, as well as in the streets of Washington, D.C. When we finally counted our losses, 58,000 Americans and by some calculations up to 800,000 Vietnamese had died. And there were thousands of other causalities of this 13-year conflict from hell.

Enter the 21st century and Iraq, Afghanistan and other far away places where we seem to be similarly mired down, this time in urban sand traps instead of triple canopy jungles. But we’re dying just the same. In Iraq we’re spending billions in a war that we don’t seem to be winning.

As I look for a sense of reason in this country I see instead criminal looting in New Orleans by surviving citizens, opportunistic criminals, and even a few cops. This is a city that demands it be rebuilt exactly where it now sits, that is, about 10 feet below sea level, using our tax dollars. And our government is seriously talking about doing just that. Future hurricanes will hit the Gulf States. We need to think, how and where should New Orleans be rebuilt, for the ultimate safety and prosperity of its citizens?  And the city deserves public servants who consider their citizenry’s welfare above their own personal gain.

This week current NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station were a [multi-billion dollar] mistake. To go even further, I don’t believe we need to spend yet billions more to return to moon (sorry NASA). At this time in our nation’s economic history, the byproducts of space travel (like Tang) are not worth the expense to me. How about developing alternate fuel automobiles instead? 

I want my precious tax dollars spent educating our people so that we can all learn to take care of ourselves. I want every citizen to be able to obtain proper housing and good medical care, and a means that will allow all of us to earn an honest, reasonable living with the chance to raise a family and eventually retire with dignity. The average salary in America is $18 an hour, hardly a comfortable living wage after taxes; this while someone like Dennis Kozlowski bilks Tyco, his employees, and his investors out of $600 million dollars. Like other corporate executives, caught and uncaught, to date, Kozlowski remains unrepentant and somehow believes himself fully justified in his actions.

Everyday I see people who hate because someone is either a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative, a Christian or a Jew, or because of skin color or where or if you attend a house of worship. Leaders like the Revs. Jackson and Sharpton were quick to blame the slow response to the flooding of New Orleans on racism in the federal government. But in doing this they label all of us racists. What would be more helpful is to look at the actions of New Orleans Mayor Nagin (come on back, the water’s fine) and Louisiana Governor Blanco (I’ll take evacuation of the city under study), both of whom were ultimately responsible for the abysmal first response in that area. Their failure to plan and execute resulted in the needless suffering of tens of thousands of Americans in a third world-like drama that the whole world watched.

And then this week a bright guy like former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett steps up and makes the unbelievable statement that “you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down,” and wonders why people do not understand that he really didn’t mean it. Of course President Bush didn’t get it either when he did an initial fly-over of New Orleans and the surrounding area. If Air Force One could not land in the area, our President should have strapped on a parachute like his dad and jumped into the city.

Tragically on October 1, 2005, we saw a 21-year-old OK college student with “emotional difficulties” blow himself up a mere 100 yards away from the Oklahoma - Kansas State football game. The explosion was hardly heard as 84,000 die hard fans continued to cheer for the gladiators on the field. In this same week a Wisconsin teenager, bow hunting in an open field, was shot by a man who said he mistook the teen for a squirrel. While the review of a video camera dropped by the victim revealed that the shooter promised the dying victim that he would go for help, the man instead allowed the wounded boy to bleed to death while he attended a birthday party, played video games, and went off to work without ever calling for assistance.

Next we witnessed Republican Majority Leader Tom Delay indicted for corruption by either a hard working and conscientious prosecutor or a partisan, power hungry local DA (your call). And New York Times reporter Judith Miller emerged from 12 weeks in jail. She either valiantly refused to disclose the identity of a source and went to jail for her integrity, or according to some, she was simply making much to do about nothing, perhaps to knight herself the modern day Joan of Arc of journalism and sell her next book, probably a Martha Stewart-like story entitled The TIMES in the Slammer. Her paper has gotten things wrong so many times that they are now going to run a regular corrections and “for the record” explanations directly under Times’ editorials. (I wonder which will be longer, the editorial itself or the “sorry, wrong again” section?) 

Finally, last week 4-year-old Valerie Lozada was found barefoot and alone while wandering the streets of New York City. She had been dropped off on a street in Queens by her mother’s live-in boyfriend, who had just murdered her mother.

My point is that truth and lies, legal and illegal, honest and dishonest and sane and insane have lost their definitions. Look at then-President Bill Clinton’s explanation of his sexual relationship with a White House intern. He fell back on his legal training to explain to all of us that his veracity, integrity and morality really hinged not on what he did and where and with whom, but “on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” 

I’m still an optimist, a believer. I believed President Bush, the Russians, the British and the other governments who told us, who swore to us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that he could and would use against us some day. That justification created the coalition of the willing that fought to deprive Iraq of such a first strike capability. Yet we still find ourselves stuck in the Middle East trying to complete the “Iraqiazation” of that country. The media presents a picture of our inability to move forward in turning Iraq over to its own people. Saddam will likely use his upcoming trial to make a mockery of both America and his country’s so called new found freedom. All of this and 298 million of us are left to decide if this war was truly started in self-defense to protect our people--or our gasoline. Currently gasoline prices appear to have no ceiling; there are dire predictions of $10 a gallon or more at some future date. I remember gasoline prices of 30 cents a gallon in the 60’s. Is there anything we can do to prevent such frightening predictions?

Who do you trust when you seek moral, just and honest direction and leadership?  Who holds our personal and national compass in their hands?  Should we trust Hollywood and those like Donald Sutherland who suggest that our government doesn’t care about the families of dead soldiers and compares America to Germany when Hitler was burning books? Does he have some truly unique insight, or is he just another overpaid, out-of-touch actor playing a television political leader (“Commander in Chief”) who believes his skewed concept of the world is one that we should all embrace.

While some will argue that the idea of absolute truth does or does not exist, others think that truth is really only situational in nature, something that is simply a “majority rules” concept in action. After all, on a compass north and magnetic north are two different things. And if we can’t get something as simple as north and south correct, how can we ever differentiate right and wrong, or trust the interpreters of true right and wrong vs. a “magnetic” right and wrong?

In law enforcement we had the U.S. Code as a baseline, the federal criminal law statues that if broken could constitute a violation of law. But is truth within you or within a law book? When I was a hostage negotiator at Waco, David Koresh told me he knew “the truth.” Down through the ages, governments and leaders have told us “the truth,” all perhaps with some element of the truth on their side, at least truth as they knew or interpreted it. It’s an age-old battle, someone’s perception of reality and actual reality.

As an American I want to believe that the course of our country is in the hands of someone, in fact many “someones,” who are capable, bright, honest and selfless in their use of the power and authority that we have given them or that they have assumed. Some of you, like me, may be tired of partisan fighting and the red or blue labels that accompany each political side. Once before we identified our United States by colors--blue and gray. It was called the Civil War, considered by many historians to be the most tragic part of American history to date. Today some may believe that the United States, like the former Soviet Union, will collapse into itself if our flawed and damaged moral compass is not replaced by a national vision and direction that rises above politics, race and religion.

Somehow we must become a nation that is both truly indivisible and that seeks actual justice for all. Many suggest that a belief in God and the tenants of the Bible is the only answer, while others will point out the fallacy of organized religion. Some continue to demand that the Ten Commandments and any reference to religion, such as “one Nation under God,” be removed from both our currency and our national vocabulary. I know what I believe in that area, but whatever your beliefs, our nation will only become truly united if we put the “we” ahead of the “me,” and don’t hide behind the definition of “is” or the location of believed “WMD’s.” Otherwise I fear for the world that our children and grandchildren will inherit. And don’t look to the left or right. Look deep into the mirror, for it’s there that you will see the image of the person allowing America’s downfall, the person who must fix our moral compass. 

Question: Can we as a nation once again find our true north? 

Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Inc. Van Zandt and his associates also developed , a Website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and was the leader of the analytical team tasked with identifying the "Unabomber."