Khmer Rouge Trials
The trials of several Khmer Rouge leaders are set to begin Feb. 17 in Phnom Penh. The most notorious is Kaing Guek Eav, better known by his revolutionary name, Comrade Duch. He is accused of overseeing the torture and death of some 16,000 men, women and children at Tuol Sleng, a former school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a detention camp. Duch, a former mathematics teacher who worked closely with Pol Pot, has been incarcerated since 1999. Overall, during the Khmer Rouge’s years of power, 1975 to 1979, close to two million Cambodians died from hunger, disease, torture and outright execution. Besides Duch, four others are to appear before the tribunal.
The tribunal came into existence six years ago as a joint undertaking of the United Nations and the Cambodian government. The relationship has been thorny, with the Cambodian government trying to limit the number of defendants. Cambodian officials contend that five are sufficient, but critics feel more should be indicted. Moreover, with corruption an ongoing problem in Cambodia, one human rights group has alleged that judges and other court personnel had paid part of their wages to government officials in exchange for their posts. The trials will at least focus world attention on one of the 20th century’s most horrific genocides.
Tuol Sleng is now a museum. Victims’ ID pictures line the walls, and cabinets hold skulls and instruments of torture—reminders of incalculable levels of suffering inflicted by one group upon an entire population. May the trials bring some measure of justice.
For years the public debate over federal income tax has focused on how much taxes can be cut and for whom. What should have been asked as well was: Are the taxes owed being paid, and by whom? Creative tax dodging, it appears, is no stranger to Congress, and it has also sullied the appointment of three persons invited to join President Obama’s new leadership team. Tim Geithner paid back taxes plus late fees after an audit, though he repaid earlier untaxed earnings only when he was nominated for a cabinet post; he is now secretary of the U.S. Treasury. Tom Daschle and Nancy Killefer withdrew their names from consideration, when tax evasion itself became a public distraction from the focus of the president’s first 100 days.
The problem could be solved if some courageous public servant would champion a remedy like the following: Require by statute that all members of Congress sign an annual statement that they have filed their taxes and included all income owed. Some law firms do this, and have found it helpful. Also, the names of Congresspersons would go into an I.R.S. random-selection pool for as long as they serve; and a significant number, perhaps up to one in four (not the current one in 100) would be audited. That would virtually end the bipartisan practice of tax evasion by legislators. Other high-salaried executives on the federal payroll could be included, too. And the states might want to follow. As regards the vetting of candidates for executive appointments, an audit should be routinely conducted, unless a candidate shows that the I.R.S. has audited him or her in the last three years.
To implement these remedies, the I.R.S. would need to hire more auditors. That would create well-paying jobs, increase federal revenues and demonstrate that those who lead government abide by its laws.
Poetry and Prose
A political seer of another age once said that candidates campaign in poetry but, once elected, must govern in prose. That distinction came to mind as President Barack Obama, who ran such a compelling campaign, moved forward with his first cabinet appointments. The president discovered to his chagrin that several of his nominees had been remiss in paying their taxes. Former Senator Tom Daschle, a close friend and adviser to Mr. Obama, was the president’s nominee to be secretary of health and human services; but Mr. Daschle, it turned out, was one of those who had been delinquent.
The president’s initial support of Mr. Daschle was a mistake in judgment that Mr. Obama came to recognize and for which he apologized to a national television audience. The president’s apology was reassuring for several reasons, not least the fact that it marked a sharp break from the pattern of White House statements over the previous eight years, when “never apologize, never explain” seemed the norm for presidential pronouncements. President Obama’s candor in speaking to the American public should set the standard for statements from public representatives of his administration in the years ahead. In doing so, the president and his staff will confirm his covenant with the nation’s citizens and build the trust that will be of critical importance as the nation and its leaders confront the formidable challenges that lie ahead.