The term “accountable” is regularly bandied about by politicians and media personages. It is often used when calling for transparency or responsibility in government. It appears most recently in reports and discussions about the police shootings in Ferguson Missouri and elsewhere and the arrest in New York of a man who died after being physically restrained during an arrest.
The point of this essay is to expose and express disdain for the increasingly euphemistic character of discourse. The current use of “accountable” and “accountability” by politicians and media is an example.
Our dictionary definitions are supposed to reflect contemporary, and in some cases, past, usage of words. They are not official, that is mandated by the powers in high, such as Big Brother’s Newspeak. The meanings, and shades of meaning, a of word often changes over time and among different cultural and social groups. Context also matters. For example, “hot” when applied to the weather or cooking means physical temperature. When applied to a situation, it could means hostile or tense. On the other hand it could mean active, such as for sales of products or investment securities. We all have heard it applied to woman, or is some instances to a man, to mean exceptionally attractive sexually.
The simplest meaning of “accountable” is called to account. The noun “account” a list of items that has some significance. As a verb, it logically means to list, to explain, to show the whereabouts of, to number, and perhaps to value, each item. As an adjective modifying a person, accountable thus means to have the duty to perform those activities.
Recent usage of “accountable” in the context of political and other reportage of controversy appears to be intended to mean responsibility, liability, blameworthiness, or guilt, in the moral or even criminal sense. Perhaps that might be the case, but that use is euphemistic, and even ambiguous. Either way it is confusing and useless.
I will skip further academic formulation, use the most familiar situations alluded to at the beginning of this writing to explain what I mean.
After the police officer shot and killed the man in Ferguson last August, the citizenry called for an investigation of the circumstances of the shooting to ascertain whether it was justified under the law. A similar call was made after the death subsequent to arrest of the man in New York to ascertain if the arrest was legal and the force used to effect that arrest was justified. The families, friends, and activists, as well as others called for the police officers to be held “accountable” for their actions. There is little doubt that what many of those really meant the officers be held liable or criminally guilty, regardless of what the facts would show. Some doubtless were only asking that an investigation be made and the officers called upon to explain their acts and be subject to review and determination; that is, held accountable.
The latter is exactly what happened. The officers’ actions were accounted for – painstakingly, it must be added – and measured against the legal standards applicable. The result of that accounting was that no probable cause existed that either violated the criminal law of the respective states. It is now confirmed that no federal civil rights laws were violated.
The results did not satisfy many, but the accounting was made. To say that an agency of government, here the police, were not held accountable is simply not true. It is correct to say that they were not held blameworthy, criminally liable, or guilty. That is a different issue, and would require that the standards – or the law – be changed.
The use of “accountable” as a synonym for blameworthiness or guilt connotes that the police and prosecutorial agencies were opaque, or even sneaky and underhanded. Our government in all of its actions must be open, transparent, and, yes, accountable. In these two instances, to suggest otherwise undermines the public confidence in a fundamental function of government – to protect the safety of the citizenry against domestic predators.