The Age of Innocence

Many thanks to Ryan Braun for the reminder Monday night that the entirety of Western civilization rests upon my willingness to be played for a sucker.

Yours, too.

I originally set out this week to write about our Great American Age of Suspicion and Surveillance, and how two rising young stars, baseball's Chris Davis and Tour de France winner Chris Froome, both faced "troubling questions" about performance enhancement. The questions were "troubling" because they were based on nothing, on no evidence at all, and reflected only the late-arriving shame and self-loathing of a zombie press corps that has done its best for decades to ignore the practical, medical, legal and ethical ramifications of doping in sports.

In their breakout seasons, in the joy of their finest moments, Davis and Froome were therefore made to pay not just for the sins of their contemporaries and predecessors but also for the media's own history of inattention and inaction.

Both are presumed guilty by lazy implication and cynical inference. Granted, our skepticism is well-earned. Again and again we find cheaters of every kind succeeding in every sport. In the same week we sent Froome up the Ventoux and Davis to the All-Star Game, Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell and a handful of others were accused of doping in track and field. As were more cyclists. And NFL football players. As a mirror to the larger culture, as a morality play, nothing much in sports surprises or disappoints us anymore. Sports are just a theater of the human, after all, and from the beginning of time athletes have lied and cheated. A rush to judgment is easy.

But a free society rests on the principles of due process and the presumption of innocence. The cheater, the liar, the crook who gets away with it are part of the cost of democracy. "It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer," wrote Blackstone in his Commentaries.

The benefit of the doubt is the price of our freedom. As is Ryan Braun. And Barry Bonds. And Lance Armstrong. All the gloating and sports-page I-told-you-so this morning doesn't change that.

We rush to build even more determined strategies and elaborate mechanisms for detection and security. Biological passports; around-the-clock surveillance; polygraph tests; watch lists. More draconian penalties.

We've been so weak on all this in the past. Sloppy. Merely ignorant in the beginning, then willfully ignorant as time went on. We learned nothing. Or worse, pretended to learn nothing. The public and the sanctioning bodies and the media and the multinationals were never very interested in the truth, or in addressing whatever human nature lay at the root of things. We sought merely to assuage our fears and perpetuate the status quo. Thus in big league baseball as it is on Wall Street as it is at the Pentagon and in Congress and at the NSA. The sins we seek to expunge are always our own.

Sure, it's just a game. But the danger lies in eventually assuming everyone everywhere is guilty of something. That everyone needs to be watched. Observed. Tested. Overseen. Overheard. Suspected. That everyone's a threat. That's the temptation. That's the real price of our cynicism and fear.

The seeds of the police state lie in the presumption of guilt. In order for democracy to survive, every citizen must be granted the presumption of innocence. No matter how often we're hurt by it or made to look foolish by men like Ryan Braun. Your freedom and mine depend upon our absolute willingness to be cheated, to be gulled, to be played for suckers again.