Do you now or have you ever trusted the government?
Once upon a time, people believed that the government had our best interests at heart. Modern conventional wisdom locates that trust somewhere prior to the early 1970s, before the era of toppling politicians known as Watergate.
(Apologists for Richard Nixon will tell you that politicians have been getting away with misdeeds forever; this one got caught. I wouldn't dispute that. I just wouldn't use it as a mitigating factor in Mr. Nixon's case.)
After Watergate, a cloud of cynicism enveloped the land. Journalism -- briefly -- became a respectable career. Oliver Stone came of age and flourished. Ross Perot became a household name.
But nobody trusts the government any more. Well, almost nobody. When the Los Angeles Times Poll asked in June, only 2 percent of those questioned said they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right all the time. Eighty-five percent said they trust the government to do what is right only some of the time or never.
The government, for its part, does what it can to make sure people keep feeling this way.
A few scenarios, all based on true stories:
* Someone wakes you in the middle of the night pounding on your door. You grab your gun. The intruders smash open the door, yelling about being cops. It is dark. You have the right to defend your home. You brandish your weapon. You are fired upon by the intruders, who, it turns out, are sheriff's deputies. They have the wrong house, or they are busting in on a pretext. A judge says they fired in self-defense. You, on the other hand, are dead.
* You are an immigrant, waiting for your work permit, having gone through the appropriate channels with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. However, on the appointed date, your child, a U.S. citizen, becomes ill and you are forced to reschedule. While waiting for your new appointment, you receive a letter from the INS asking you to come in to pick up your permit. You swallow your skepticism and go. And you are arrested and deported. Surprise! The INS letter was a trick.
* You are arrested as you prepare to board a plane for a quick business trip. You are carrying a large sum of money to buy business supplies, and you get a better deal paying cash. Police think you are making a drug run. You are outraged, and refuse to tell them anything more than that you are making a trip for business. They let you go. No charges are filed. But they keep your money. To get it back, you have to prove you are innocent. The normal constitutional protections do not apply. Why? Because we're talking about the asset forfeiture laws that earn the Drug Enforcement Administration and local law enforcement jurisdictions millions of dollars each year.
* You are a celebrity. You pay your taxes like everyone else. And like everyone else, you are entitled to a certain degree of privacy. But certain government employees are curious about your financial situation. They work for the IRS and they have access to the agency's computers. So they do a little cruising through the files, not to tamper, just to satisfy their curiosity. The IRS discovers this in an audit.
It also discovers that some employees have indeed tampered, ** creating fraudulent returns to engineer larger refunds, from which they receive kickbacks. The errant employees are dealt with. But when a senator demands that people whose returns have been inappropriately perused be notified, the head of the IRS demurs: "I'm not sure there would be a serious value to that in terms of tax administration or in connection with what I see as protecting the taxpayers' rights."
Government abuse of trust can be so far-fetched sometimes as to sound like fiction.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Study (1932-72) is a horrifying historic example. More than 400 black men were not treated by government doctors for syphilis long after penicillin was routinely used to cure it, but were studied to see how syphilis ran its course in the human body.
The Tuskegee experiments are the reason, some have said, that AIDS is thought to be a government conspiracy against blacks, the reason why many blacks will not take experimental AIDS drugs. This relationship was laid out in June in a breathtaking story in GQ. "If I'm gonna die of HIV, I'm gonna die of HIV," one HIV-positive black woman told the magazine. "I'm not gonna let anyone practice on me."
Sen. John Glenn, who chaired hearings on the IRS misdeeds last week, was comically stern in his admonishment to the 115,000-employee agency.
"Correct this," he told the IRS, "or there will be a lack of general confidence in the system, and that would be tragic."
Wonder if he reads the polls.
Robin Abcarian is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.