The revelations in the media that Al Sharpton was an informant for the FBI is actually pretty old news. It was even in his book “Go and Tell Pharaoh,” which came out in 1996. However, the media are all up in arms over it. I myself find the whole thing rather dull, except for the moral question it raises. Just when is it OK to rat?
The ethical conundrum is something we get handed along with our graham crackers and milk before we ever see kindergarten. On the one hand, you don’t beat the other toddler up because he kicked over your sand castle. On the other hand, when you tell an adult about it, as often as not, you are informed, “No one likes a tattletale.” As you grow up, tattletale becomes rat or snitch, but the moral tension remains the same. The case of Sharpton does help establish a little clarity, but not enough to resolve the matter once and for all.
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There are two versions of the Sharpton case. One is from the man himself, and the other from the people at the Smoking Gun. The New York Daily News reported that Sharpton “said he went to the feds after his life was threatened by mobsters — and that in his mind, he was not an informant, even though the government referred to him in court papers as CI-7, short for Confidential Informant 7. ‘I don’t know if I’m C-7 or B-19. I don’t know none of that,’ he said. ‘I know I was threatened. I did what anybody would do … other than a thug. And I cooperated’.”
The Smoking Gun reported, “The reverend was ‘flipped’ by FBI agents three months after he was filmed in March 1983 (during a bureau sting) talking cocaine with an undercover agent.”
Either way, everyone agrees that Sharpton worked for the FBI to take down mafiosi. And in his version, his actions are much nobler than those in the Smoking Gun version. But why? The actions are exactly the same? Why is there a distinction?
I suppose the place to start is whether the authorities to whom you report the offense are legitimate. Informing (snitching, whatever) when you live in Nazi-occupied Europe is a very different thing than telling Uncle Sam. You have to have a rather radical view of the FBI, the United States government or the idea of democratic self-government not to accept that the G-men are the good guys most of the time.
The next thing to ask is on whom is one informing? Telling the Gestapo that Anne Frank and her family are living next door is not morally the same as revealing the activities of the Mafia’s Five Families or Latin American drug cartels.
It’s pretty clear in either case that Sharpton was informing on Mafia guys to the FBI. As much as I liked “The Sopranos” and “The Godfather,” I can’t honestly say that I want the mob to win in what passes for the real world.
A third factor is your relationship to the other parties in the situation. I have no dealings with the mob nor the FBI (and don’t want any). However, if asked by the mob to help against the FBI, I would decline (as politely as survival demands) while I would seriously consider helping the FBI against the Mafia (I am a self-admitted coward, and so, would want a lot of assurance from the feds about my well-being and absolute control over casting the film that would be made).
However, in Sharpton’s case, he was part of the situation beforehand in both versions of the story. If he were threatened by the mob, then going to the FBI and taking active part in protecting himself would make perfect moral sense. That’s Sharpton’s version.
Yet, if he flipped after getting involved in a crime himself (cocaine dealing, distributing, whatever), his sudden desire to stick it to the Buonannos is just self-serving. And that’s rather interesting really. Not wanting to get killed by the mob is self-serving as well.
What seems to upset people is doing the right thing only after you have been threatened for having done the wrong thing. The moral issue is not so much the actions but the intentions behind them.
Still confused? So am I.