The Dangers of the Post-Tragedy Blame Game

Whether it's Boston or Benghazi, the rush to point fingers helps no one.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., questions a witness during the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's hearing on Benghazi on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 8, 2013. (Cliff Owen/AP Photo)
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., questions a witness during the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's hearing on Benghazi on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 8, 2013. (Cliff Owen/AP Photo)

After any tragedy, there is a rush to figure out what went wrong – how it could have been prevented, what signs or signals were missed. It's a painful but very necessary exercise, since (as my parents repeatedly reminded me during my childhood) failure is an impetus for learning.

The lessons are lost or at least muddied, however, when the process turns from a learning exercise to one of simply assigning blame – especially when there is a baldly political motivation behind it. Several recent episodes call for some kind of serious re-examination of how our intelligence and law enforcement entities work. But in at least one of those cases, politics threatens to taint the importance of the inquiry.

In Cleveland, three women were kept hostage for a decade, abused and raped. At one point, someone claims to have seen a woman in the backyard, naked and on all fours as though she were a dog. Other calls of possible domestic abuse were reportedly made to police (although that is in some dispute).

Where were the police? Was the situation given low priority because it was a "domestic"? Everyone – not just residents of Cleveland – has a right to know those answers; not to assign blame, but to make sure such cases are given proper attention.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the Boston Marathon bombings.]

In the case of the Boston marathon bombings, a congressional committee heard testimony about how the FBI did not adequately communicate with Boston police about one of the bombing suspects. Had the police known about concerns surrounding Tamerlan Tsarnarev, they would have done something about it, Boston's police commissioner said. There's no guarantee that such communication would have prevented the attack – and the FBI said police indeed had access to the database – but the failure to connect is surely worth investigating. Still, no one is suggesting that somehow the feds deliberately kept information from police as part of some political agenda.

The Benghazi attacks, too, are worth examining at the highest levels. Four Americans were killed, and the initial explanation – that local Libyans were upset about an anti-Muslim video – turned out to be wrong, or at least incomplete. It does appear to be a premeditated attack (thought that does not mean the video had nothing to do with it).

This is indeed worth investigating, since the initial blame put the new Libyan leader in an awkward and embarrassing position – not an unimportant factor in diplomacy. The take on the video came from CIA talking points, then was repeated by the State Department. How was that conclusion made, and what impact, if any, did the wrong information cause? A State Department official delivered chilling testimony on the Hill about the U.S.'s failure to send reinforcements to protect Americans from a second attack, but the military says it could never have gotten planes to the site on time anyway. Embassy officials had asked for more security, and it's stunning that they never got it – but the Hill needs to take some responsibility, too, for cutting budgets that affect overseas security.

All these are important questions, but they are important so we can make sure Americans serving abroad are better protected.

Unfortunately, the Benghazi episode has been brazenly politicized by conservatives seeking to derail a potential 2016 candidacy by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Republicans on the Hill have likened the episode to Watergate (Can we stop with that? It's been three decades.), and a conservative PAC has an ad out slamming Clinton for her behavior on Benghazi.

Not only is the ad of questionable use – the idea that someone of Clinton's stature, experience and political network could be eliminated as a 2016 candidate three years ahead of the election is absurd – but it undermines the very important work of the investigations themselves. The American public deserves answers on what really happened in Benghazi. Instead, it just got political talking points – the same thing the GOP has accused Clinton of delivering on the issue.

  • Read Peter Fenn: Sorry, GOP, Benghazi Won't Hurt Hillary Clinton or the Democrats in 2016
  • Read Ford O'Connell: Republicans Can Learn From Chris Christie and Obama
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