Why the VA Scandal Is the Real Outrage

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May 20 2014 6:23 PM

Why the VA Scandal Is the Real Outrage

There is a cost to being perpetually outraged. We have nothing left when something genuinely terrible is exposed.

VA Hospital, NYC
U.S. Military veteran and amputee Lloyd Epps at the Manhattan VA hospital in April.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

If you’ve ever been seriously sick or helped a family member who is, you know how dark it can get. In the hospital, you look to every doctor or nurse who throws back that curtain and punches the hand sanitizer machine as if they have the answer, but they don’t. This test or that test will tell us more, you’re told, or we’ll know more after one more bag is hooked up and drained. If you’re on a slower track, it’s just a gauntlet of appointments weeks away, tests on different floors or in different buildings, illegible return visit dates scribbled on little cards, lost parking tickets you can’t validate, endless pill trays (the clear one in the morning and the opaque one at night). 

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

This is what it’s like even if everything goes relatively smoothly and you get care: It’s scary and helpless. Now imagine if you experienced it with the inefficiency of the worst experience you’ve ever had with customer service. That’s what’s happening in some cases at Veteran Affairs clinics and hospitals around the country: People at their most acute moments of need are being ignored and forgotten. 

This is an outrage to be outraged about. But does anyone have faith that this outrage will be answered by serious action? One primary reason to despair is that we’re already living at peak outrage. Fake umbrage taking and outrage production are our most plentiful political products, not legislation and certainly not interesting solutions to complicated issues. We are in a new political season, too—that means an extra dose of hot, high stakes outrage over the slightest thing that might move votes. How does something get recognized as beyond the pale when we live beyond the pale? 

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What makes the VA scandal different is not only that it affected people at their most desperate moment of need—and continues to affect them at subpar facilities. It’s also a failure of one of the most basic transactions government is supposed to perform: keeping a promise to those who were asked to protect our very form of government. The growing scandal points out more than just incompetence. When the wait times were long and those promises were being broken to veterans, administrators then lied about it. It appears this was true across the country

If you want another injured party, it’s the angels at the VA—the doctors and nurses who work long hours and call you on their cellphone after dinner to answer questions that to you seem like the only thing in the world that’s important. This scandal is an offense to the people trying to keep their most basic promises, even though the system is tough, battered, and bruised. 

Unlike some other debates, this one can’t be delayed by a conversation over whether caring for veterans is the proper responsibility of the federal government. But the political conversation is so caught up in the wasteful cycle of outrage, that this is simply being sorted as another thing to be angry about. The politicians are to blame for that fact, but so are we. Genuine outrage—sustained outrage—is required to move politicians. Every time we let politicians claim we’re facing another Watergate, or partisan pundits inflame us on Facebook, or Twitter trolls play on our emotions, we spoil our ability to respond to the outrages that really matter.

Obviously given the level of incompetence at the Department of Veteran Affairs and the real costs of this scandal, we should demand more action from the president and the men and women who lead this department. Maybe Congress can move as quickly and in as bipartisan a fashion as they did when it seemed that sequestration might cause long airline delays.

The pressure can’t be short-lived. Unlike the phony outrages that get addressed and forgotten, improving service at the VA is going to take time. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the VA was a more difficult bureaucracy than the Pentagon.

We can also do something immediately to show our respect for the people being abused or neglected. The VA scandal should temper the faux outrage we project on lesser matters. As FDR said, the public cannot “be attuned for long periods of time to a constant repetition of the highest note on the scale.” If we are constantly yelling outrage, it leaves us with nothing when the real thing comes along.

In this time of political purity tests, let’s require a purity test for the constant state of alarm. The next time someone turns their meter up to 11—whether it’s a politician, a pundit, or your aunt on Facebook—their outrage should be measured against what has already happened at the VA.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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