This should be called the "decency cliff." When a nation fails to live up to basic standards of decency, bad things happen. Revolutions, uprisings and repressions occur.
The United States now teeters on this cliff. One of the symptoms is the explosion of what can be called "mini-McCarthys," pint-sized versions of Tail Gunner Joe McCarthy the disgraced and reprimanded U.S. senator from Wisconsin.
For those not of an age or disinterested in politics, McCarthy was the most vile of politicians -- a liar, drunk and mentally unstable individual who, in the 1950s, made a career of ruining Americans merely by calling them communists. McCarthy even had the temerity to accuse Gen. George Marshall of heinous behavior before the Senate finally censured McCarthy and ended the reign of terror he so embraced.
Two examples of this decency cliff are self-evident. The first is what, if anything, will be done in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre in which 20 young children were brazenly killed. The second is how we treat potential appointees for high office.
The roots of this decency gap are decades old. Political correctness was an antecedent. Cultural censors attacked the use of any language that wasn't plain vanilla in content on the grounds of offending some group, somewhere. And the U.S. Supreme Court wasn't helpful.
In three of the worst cases of jurisprudence since Plessey vs. Ferguson -- District of Columbia vs. Heller, which changed the meaning of the Second Amendment about gun rights; Bush vs. Gore, which elected a president; and United Citizens, which permitted political action committees unlimited political spending -- the forces of indecency have been multiplied.
Hence, not only is it fair game to conjure up the most horrible misrepresentations and slanders about individuals. Vast funding is available to fund those slurs and wrongful allegations.
Regarding gun control, it is inconceivable that this nation doesn't have stronger prohibitions beginning with mandatory licensing for all gun owners and users. Tragically, the 1986 Heller decision ignored the meaning of "a well-regulated militia" as the basis for the right to keep and bear arms. And apologists for the broader interpretation of the Second Amendment duck this latest tragedy by arguing we need to focus on fixing mental health and a culture of media violence first.
Regarding the "mini-McCarthys," Ambassador Susan Rice was the latest casualty. While this column opposed her nomination, the reasons had nothing to do with the Benghazi tragedy or alleged coverup -- a coverup that the Accountability Panel headed by Ambassador Tom Pickering and Adm. Mike Mullen absolutely rejected. She was simply not the best-qualified person for the job of secretary of state.
Now, former sergeant and U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. is in the sights of the mini-McCarthys. Branded an anti-Semite and anti-gay, Hagel's extraordinary service to his country in war and in peace is being tarnished for obscenely perverse and wrong reasons. In full disclosure we are colleagues at the Atlantic Council and have been friends for a long time.
Make no mistake: Chuck Hagel would make a great secretary of anything. But his suitability for the position isn't the issue. Decency is. And people who make slanderous and simply wrong accusations must be held accountable.
Given the pernicious and septic nature of our political system and the overriding proposition that "you are either with us or against us," decency is unlikely to win through without some help from the president and the public. So where is the outrage?
U.S. President Barack Obama can navigate the nation back to a course where common decency and civil dialogue aren't automatically excluded from politics.
First, the White House must craft a basic gun control bill. Then, this bill should be subjected to a national referendum. Surely, money for that referendum can be easily raised. No doubt such a bill would secure a large majority in its favor. So armed, it will be difficult for Congress to bow to the National Rifle Association and other lobbies and reject this bill.
Second, the administration must be pro-active in defending people it is considering for high office. As Sergeant Hagel knows, "no-man's land" is the worst place to find oneself in war and in peace. Clearly, eminent Americans should stand up and correct the record especially against overtly slanderous and deliberately misleading charges.
Finally, the public has a role. The issue isn't politics. The issue is decency. And here we face a dangerous cliff unless we are prepared to change course.
(Harlan Ullman is chairman of the Killowen Group, which advises leaders of government and business, and senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)