Scrabble, Virginia — We are planting trees where we used to hay, my neighbors and I, hundreds of little trees so small that you could step on them if you weren’t looking. We decided to stop growing hay because, frankly, we didn’t like the ecosystem to which haying was integral. Hay is grown in Rappahannock to feed beef cows, of which there are a lot around here, very fine species I am told. Beef, however, puts a lot of demand on the ecosystem and haying requires a fleet of single purpose cutting, fluffing, and bailing machines that would make Rube Goldberg proud.
Haying also requires fertilizer and our fields are laced with streams that lead to creeks that run away to rivers that create the Rappahannock, which feeds into the Chesapeake. Fertilizer is destructive in the Bay, causing algae blooms and killing oysters and fish. Trees, on the other hand, take little maintenance and have the great added feature of capturing carbon naturally. As part of the generation that caused an enormous spike in carbon in the atmosphere, our planting trees, putting up large solar arrays, and driving all electric cars seems to be the least that we can do. So, we are omitting to grow hay this year and are committing to create a forest.
I have been thinking about acts of omission and commission, sins of failing to act and sins of acting wrongly. When I was a boy in the Congregational Church, our Scottish pastor believed that children should memorize certain passages of scripture and important prayers. Things remembered by rote at a young age never leave us, even when we no longer participate or believe in the institutions associated with them. Thus, I recall a chant of confession that included these lines: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent.”
It is hard to escape the conclusion that our country, or at least our national government, or more specifically its leaders, have left undone those things which they ought to have done. Indeed, in many respects they have done those things which they ought not to have done. And certainly, as a nation there is no health in us. We are, however, a forgiving nation. We respect those that confess their faults and are penitent.
When this plague passes or becomes a part of the normal, there should come a time to examine what acts were omitted, what mistakes were committed, who was involved in each kind of act, and who wishes to confess and seek forgiveness. Other nations have done this with mixed success through the vehicle of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, South Africa being the best example as it dealt with the sin of Apartheid. We in this country tried to gain answers to an American tragedy through the 911 Commission.
The Bush Administration initially fought against there being a 911 Commission and then sought to limit its scope and powers. They tried to exert Executive Privilege to prevent the counter-terrorism coordinator from disclosing what the President had said to him and to excuse the National Security Advisor from testifying at all. These efforts failed because the families of the victims organized and demanded the truth. The Commission declassified top secret documents that made clear the President’s culpability and that of others in his administration through their acts of omission. It did not, however, fully investigate the acts of commission by the CIA, which intentionally blocked responsible authorities from knowing that al Qaeda terrorists were already in the United States. Overall, however, the public generally believed that the Commission did good work and helped them to understand why their government had failed them.
It is time for another such commission. Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff has proposed one, with its chair chosen by the President. Republican Congressman Rodney Davis has suggested a commission whose chair would be someone whom the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader could agree upon, assuming that is not a null set. It strikes me that Davis has it right, a commission that may end up investigating the President should not be chaired by someone he appoints.
Critics of a Pandemic Commission proposal will say that it would feed political animosity and pour salt in open wounds better left to heal. I disagree because the American people long for and deserve accountability in public officials. They deserve to know why their government failed them because maybe this time, just possibly, we will learn lessons once we understand the what, why, and whom. And, moreover, a Commission may provide a venue where some may confess and ask forgiveness. It would help us heal.