Collateral damage (noun) 1. any damage incidental to an activity. --Random House Dictionary
Anthony Weiner, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer, John Ensign, and Christopher Lee. I’ve been trying to come up with some kind of fitting name to describe this group of male politicians, who in the past few years have very publically and sensationally crashed and burned, all due to their collective inability to contain their sexual appetites. Each of these man-boys apparently found the siren song of sexual temptation more alluring than pesky little things like marital vows, or honesty or ethics or even the law. To recap their exploits (in the order listed above): tweeted pornographic self portraits, carried on affair while wife had cancer and also got mistress pregnant, cheated on spouse during South American soiree, solicited high priced prostitutes, secretly paid off lover with campaign funds and finally, bared soul and chest online.
So what do you think works for a snappy moniker? The Salacious Six? The Gang of Goons? Men without Brains? The Caveman Collective? Making a joke of Representative Weiner’s actions in particular seems like so much shooting fish in a barrel. His BVD photo is a bad dirty joke with a million potential punch lines.
And yet while what these men did is seemingly funny, it is also not so funny, not at all, if we really think about it. For lost in all the sordid details and headlines (which we the public love to hear about) is one truth rarely if ever reported. The world of hurt and pain and shame and embarrassment and dishonor which always results from such human sin. The collateral damage: the reality that when humans sin (and we all do, in large and small ways) we often take others down with us and most often these folks are the innocent, the bystander, and the powerless.
Take John Edwards. Just four years ago, this ex-Vice Presidential candidate stood on the steps of a flood ravaged home in New Orleans and announced he was running for President, as a champion of the poor and the underdog in our country. His resume was perfect: good looks and a smart lawyer wife bravely battling cancer. Former trial attorney sticking up for the exploited. Changed dad because of the death of a child. Proud father of adult and young children. But underneath this perfect image we now know was another story, a lie. So even as he sold himself as a paragon of virtue and family values, Edwards carried on an affair with a woman who worked on his campaign. He impregnated her, gained a new child out of wedlock and vociferously denied all the rumors and accusations. According to a recent indictment, he also allegedly asked his rich donors to bankroll hush money for the mysterious woman and baby.
He created a train wreck of his own life but worse even, he damaged and hurt all those around him. He humiliated and hurt his wife and kids. He betrayed millions of his supporters. I was one. He denied the high calling of his profession. He exploited a young woman in his employ. He manipulated his donors. He made a mockery of Presidential politics. Such a huge trail of human destruction all for one sin and one impulsive choice: to commit adultery and then to lie to cover it all up.
The lesson is important to remember, whether it is about Edwards, Weiner or any one of their ilk. Human sin, while often individual in nature, is almost always communal in effect. “I” might do wrong but inevitably “we” pay the price for that wrongheaded choice. So when a person is unfaithful to a spouse, it potentially destroys an entire family system. When an officeholder chooses to use their power and ego to cross an ethical line, he or she hurts an institution, an entire community, and even a whole nation. How we humans live matters. The choices we make have huge implications and not just for ourselves alone but for all those around us. Sin is never just about me; it is also about “thee” too.
So the next time some high flying politician or public figure gets caught in a sin and then holds a press conference to weep crocodile tears and offer pseudo apologies, we should remember all the unnamed folks who are not before the cameras and the klieg lights. The people who were taken down because someone they depended upon let them down, often very hard. The heartbroken spouses. The deceived kids. The embarrassed colleagues. The besmirched office. The duped voters. The whole community.
In the end, human sin hurts every one. That’s something to tweet about.