The US is claiming that the Syrian government has used poison gas against their rebel opponents, and they are using this as a reason to engage in the conflict on the rebel side. Should we believe or discount their claim? I have no idea but the fact that the claim was made adds nothing to whether I think it might be true. The problem is that, in providing excuses for war, the US has absolutely no credibility. I think about the Iraq war and the lies they told then about weapons of mass destruction.
The FBI is claiming that Edward Snowden's revelations have jeopardized American lives. Should we believe or discount this claim? Again, I have no idea. Again the claim adds nothing to whether I think it might be true. This time I think about the Bradley Manning leaks about the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where the claims that they jeopardized American lives have not been confirmed (and you would certainly expect the State Department to be trumpeting them abroad if there was confirmation).
The problem about lies is that they destroy credibility. In the case of individual liars we don't have to be all that worldly-wise to withhold our judgement or immediately discount their statements. Which of us, when Bill Clinton proclaimed "I did not have sex with that woman", immediately accepted the statement? Or which of us, when former US Senator Todd Akin made the claim that victims of "legitimate rape" cannot become pregnant immediately accepted the statement? We are free to accept or reject the personal statements of individual politicians usually without any significant harm done. If Clinton or Akin tried to sell me a second-hand car I wouldn't buy it, nor do I given any credence to any other personal protestations they might make.
But when a state lies, especially one as powerful as the US, we all have a problem. Of course, states have always lied but nowadays the stakes are higher.
To begin with, if we live in a democracy, we are part of a social contract. We pay our taxes and we observe the laws of our country. In return we are entitled to be honestly governed by the people we have chosen in a plebiscite where we have weighed the pros and cons of competing candidates. If governments violate their side of this bargain they endanger this social contract. If they betray our trust they lose our cooperation and our goodwill. This is a downside for a government who, presumably, wish to be re-elected. The problem is that damage is being done to the political fabric in the longer term. When politicians see that the only downside is to be kicked out in favour of the next lot they may, when their personal economic advantage is at stake, simply accept this downside. Worse still is that the lying precedent that has been set can all the more easily followed by the next lot. In this way, the social contract continues to be degraded.
In my opinion much has gone wrong with American governance over the last generation and especially since the 9/11 attacks. The implosion of the former USSR removed a check on the behaviour of the US - and their greater power led to greater corruption. Then, in the wake of 9/11, when (understandably) many Americans looked for very strong leadership, that leadership abused its power in the most shocking ways. Internationally, they went to war for the flimsiest of reasons. Domestically, they instigated a regime of surveillance and harassment against their internal enemies in which many innocent citizens became victims. All of this is possible only because liars are not held to account. They can lie with impunity and now a climate of scepticism shrouds all governmental announcements. Unfortunately this is bound to lead to a rise in those who believe in conspiracy theories. How ironic that the lies over the Benghazi attack might encourage people to believe that the US government brought down the Twin Towers.
So what should we as individuals do? Obviously, it is a rare person who can make a great difference. But we shouldn't just leave it to others and we mustn't be cowed. At every opportunity we must denounce the lies - and not care that this will lead to much repetition. Remember: governments should fear the people, not people fear the government.
Don't be afraid to say: Clinton was a liar over Monica Lewinsky, Bush was a liar over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Obama lied when he said that Mitt Romney planned to raise taxes by $2000 on middle-income tax-payers.
I am not saying disbelieve anything the government says. No, let's not encourage conspiracy-mongering. But I am saying don't believe anything until you have some corroborative evidence. Politicians need to win back their credibility - it's in all our interests.