WASHINGTON -- The new year began not with a cannonball off the fiscal cliff but with an outbreak of conspiratorial cynicism.
This time it's Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose fall and concussion, followed by a blood clot between her brain and skull, have prompted an embarrassment of theories. The gist: That woman will do anything to avoid testifying about Benghazi.
Several commentators on the right opined via Twitter and TV, those most deadly hosts for the piranha of rumor and innuendo, that Clinton was faking her concussion to duck out on her appearance before congressional committees investigating the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
An independent report published last month placed substantial responsibility on the State Department. Not only was security at the Benghazi compound weak, relying heavily on local forces with conflicting loyalties, but requests for additional security apparently had been ignored or denied.
The sentiment that Clinton might not wish to testify is not without reason. It is hard to imagine the agony of knowing that one's lack of vigilance may have contributed to four deaths. But the attacks on Clinton during her illness, essentially attacks on her character, have been cruel and unfair. What must the world think of us?
Clinton, who fainted as a result of dehydration brought on by a stomach virus, hit her head and suffered a concussion, after which a blood clot was discovered. She had to be hospitalized while blood-thinning medications were administered and monitored.
Although her critics backed off once the clot was reported, initial responses ranged from "She's faking" to demands for proof of her concussion.
One writer demanded her medical records. John Bolton, former ambassador to the United Nations, called Clinton's affliction a "diplomatic illness" to avoid testifying about Benghazi. Later he suggested that details were skimpy in an effort to protect her potential 2016 presidential run.
"I think it's the too-cute-by-half approach that's reflected in the absence of transparency that's going to end up damaging her and damaging her credibility," he said on Fox News.
Again, Clinton may well prefer to miss her day before the firing squad, but it is unlikely that medical doctors or a hospital would assist a secretary of state -- or anyone -- in concocting a fake affliction.
Besides, you can't have it every which way. Immediately after the Benghazi attacks, Clinton took full responsibility for the events and was accused by Republicans of falling on her sword to protect President Obama.
Now that she's temporarily indisposed and unable to elaborate on her admitted responsibility, those same critics insist she's trying to avoid taking personal responsibility.
The viciousness of the pundit class is disheartening and disgusting. And these days everyone's a pundit. Got an opinion? Why, step right up to the microphone. If you're "good TV," you too can be a "contributor."
Out in the hinterlands, where Americans consume "news" that suits their political proclivities, opinions are formed on the basis of what-he-said. Reputations and lives are ruined on the tines of pitchforks glimmering in the light of torch-bearing mobs. And those are just the "news" shows.
One doesn't have to be a fan of Hillary Clinton, though a Bloomberg poll says that two-thirds of Americans are, to feel tainted by the relish with which she and many other have been attacked -- unfairly and disproportionately. Susan Rice, who was Obama's favorite to replace Clinton as secretary of state, comes to mind.
But this isn't a problem only for women or Democrats. The rush to character assassination seems to be our only bipartisan imperative and is a blight on our political system. In this brooding age of superstition and portent, every misspoken word is a lie, every human error a hanging offense.
This is not to suggest that we be naive or credulous, but that we seek some balance in our approach to discovery. At the moment, we seem to be ricocheting between hysteria and delusion.
Eventually, Clinton will have to step forward and take her medicine. She is slated to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in mid-January, though the date hasn't been set. The nation clearly needs answers on what happened in Benghazi, and no doubt Clinton will provide them.
This is not blind faith in a favored politician, but respect for a process that relies on accepted rules of order. We owe our representative to the world -- which is to say, ourselves -- at least this much.