Secrets -- telling nothing, and telling all

A friend was raised by his mother on the Walter Scott text, ''Oh, what a tangled web we weave,/ When first we practice to deceive!'' He still chants these lines to himself in mock exasperation whenever life temporarily turns into a covert operation, as almost everybody's life will do now and then.

Secrecy, and its relation to its kissing cousins - deceit and downright lying - has become an absorbing ethical issue on both the personal and the public level, and a lot of people are having difficulty striking a consistent position.

Take the public level first.

On the one hand, we tend to regard secrecy as a most un-American aberration, contradicting our ideal of ourselves as the last of the open, candid people in a devious, duplicitous world.

On the other hand, we seem to be persuaded that our enemies and the pressures of the Nuclear Age leave us no choice now but to become a partially closed, security-conscious society, practicing more and more government-by-secrecy, like everybody else.

This conflict is producing its share of despair. Like the Scott-indoctrinated fellow, we ask ourselves: Do we want to succeed if the price is too much secrecy? We are almost relieved to discover that for us, the pure in heart, secrecy doesn't work very well. We gobble up books by ex-CIA agents documenting the opera-bouffe inefficiency of our cloak-and-dagger ploys. Something in us feels morally vindicated, like failed liars, by our very ineptitude at such secret missions as the Bay of Pigs.

When we are in a mood to read our recent history as a morality play, we see Secrecy as the dominant flaw - if not the cause - of our troublesome times. Was not Vietnam, our first defeat, also the most secret of our wars, from the camouflaged steps that led to our involvement to the often misleading bulletins that disguised the denouement? Then there was Watergate - a bungled secrecy that has left us still shaken by distrust, like a case of national infidelity.

We hunger for light rather than darkness - for the fullest application of the First Amendment, for public access to all information. We worry about wiretaps and about computer networks that pool the data on our private lives without our knowledge or consent.

Our elected and appointed officials regularly assure us that secrecy will never be abused, adding that a modern state is helpless against criminals at home and hostile forces abroad unless some license is allowed for subterfuge. As the '80s turn into what is perceived as a kind of general emergency, leaders find it easier and easier to say: ''Great Scott! We're talking about life and death, and you're quibbling about procedures. Can't you tell good-guy secrecy from bad-guy secrecy? It's all for your own benefit, you know.''

But something in us still finds secrecy in peacetime to be the immoral equivalent of war. Something in us still welcomes a forthcoming book like ''Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation,'' by Sissela Bok, which appears to show interest in proving that secrecy just does not pay.

Meanwhile, in our personal lives it is all quite different. The very concept of secrecy seems to be disappearing. If the game of ''I've Got a Secret'' were still popular, who would play it? The closets are emptying at an alarming rate. Total disclosure is the fashion. People will confess to 50 million viewers of a television talk show intimacies they would not have whispered once to their best friend.

Secrecy, as a branch of hypocrisy, used to be the compliment vice paid to virtue.

One did not want to lose one's reputation, and so one concealed.

Now one wants to make one's reputation (of another sort), and so one spills all.

Is this often silly and trivial candor our way of compensating for the increase of secrecy on the public level?

If so, would that our fellow citizens were a little more discreet, and our leaders a little less so.

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