The Two Smiling Bills

  Last week a federal district court found software giant Microsoft guilty of anti-trust violations, thereby sending a seismic shock through Silicon Valley and the investment world. While I haven't studied the case in depth and don't pretend to know whether the government's case has merit, there are aspects of these recent events that are deeply troubling. Two days after Federal District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ruled against him, Bill Gates was in Washington, being treated like royalty. He was escorted to the Capitol, surrounded by House and Senate leaders, and was then ferried to the White House where, on the heels of a devastating legal judgment, he was photographed, laughing and smiling, with the President of the United States. It was a preposterous juxtaposition: What other figure, whose company had just been found guilty of such crimes, would ever be treated this way? During the Watergate era, those of us convicted of crimes were treated as pariahs. Our friends were afraid even to be seen with us, and properly so, I might add. In terms of the law, we had disgraced ourselves. But that's not what's happening today. If the case against Microsoft was well founded—and for the sake of argument let's say it was—then why is the Administration treating as royalty the man whose company they prosecuted for these serious anti-trust violations? What message are we sending with this tactic? Well, the message is that we trivialize the law. It says that prosecutions of this nature are meaningless. Judges can convict, render verdicts, and levy penalties—and then we go on with business as usual, like nothing happened. This scofflaw attitude is a sign of our times. In today's world of value-neutral morality, we no longer attach stigma to prosecution and punishment by the government. The situation is hauntingly reminiscent of events surrounding President Clinton's Impeachment trial. Clinton was the first president to be impeached in more than 100 years—and yet, after the vote, down on the White House lawn, his partisans celebrated as though they'd just won a campaign victory. Inviting Bill Gates to the White House sends the message that prosecution means nothing—that if you're the president of a big company, or the President of the United States, you pay no penalty for your crimes. Break the law? Next day we'll honor you with a White House celebration. Magically, the stigma is gone. Ultimately, this kind of treatment destroys one of the most important sanctions of a free society—a custom deeply rooted biblically, as well—and that is that condemned people ought to be stigmatized. Today, unfortunately, the mark of Cain is a ticket to celebrity. When people break the laws of a culture, they ought to lose power, status, and prestige. That's one of the most basic principles of civilization, dating back to primitive times. But with the Microsoft case, this ancient code has been repealed. By refusing to place blame where it belongs, we do great damage to the rule of law. And that's the message we have to make sure our children understand—especially when they see those pictures of the two smiling Bills at the White House last week. For in a civilized society, to disregard the penalty of judgment is, ultimately, to diminish the very standards by which we live.


Chuck Colson


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