Thanks to the entertainment imperative that drives media coverage of our political affairs, it would come as no surprise if Americans treated elections for political office about as seriously as voting for this week's "American Idol" contenders.
Of course, the "American Idol" winners won't be deciding whether to send our troops into combat, or how best to confront the persistent challenge of terrorism. They also won't have to decide whether to put their careers on the line in order to make sure a region devastated by a hurricane gets timely and effective help coping with the disaster and its aftermath. More often than not, only the life or death of their egos is at stake when entertainers vie for prominence — not the lives of thousands, or even millions of their fellow citizens.
Politics involves serious matters, sometimes the most serious that human beings ever confront. Yet the information that people need to make their political judgments now comes to them in a form that trivializes the electoral process and its potential consequences.
Decisions made with little regard for the consequences usually produce results inadequate to deal with them. This helps to explain why America's present political leaders seem so unready to deal with the grave events and circumstances our nation faces. As depicted in the movies or on TV, fictional crises can have entertainment value. But when the deaths are real, and what is left behind are not empty popcorn boxes, but grieving hearts and devastated lives, they're just no fun at all.
Real crises don't have a two-hour time limit. Sometimes there's no telling when we'll be able to get back to business as usual and get on with our lives. Sometimes these crises change everything, and not for the better.
The Strength of a Free People
When America declared war on Germany and Japan in 1942, Americans had no way of knowing how long the war would last. There was no timetable for the withdrawal of our troops, no exit strategy except the incorrigible hope for victory. The Nazis had conquered most of Europe; the Japanese militarists had destroyed the mainstay of America's defenses in the Pacific. In Great Britain, Churchill could offer the beleaguered remnants of European freedom nothing but blood, tears, toil, and sweat. America's president could promise only the great exertions needed to focus and mobilize her vast but still unrealized war-making capacity.
The nation entered the dark nightmare of war with no light showing, except the glow of her people's faith, and the certainty that they fought against great wickedness for a cause God would bless.
It's easy to understand that the strength of free people during such bleak times lay in their moral fiber; in the ability to soldier on against the odds, not because they knew when the crisis would pass, but because they knew that what they did was necessary for the survival of all they believed to be decent, just, and right. It turns out that, as the word suggests, the root of morale is moral. The leadership needed to sustain the nation's morale had to understand and articulate the moral values that lay at the heart of the conflict between freedom and Nazism, between democratic self-government and the ruthless imperialism of the Japanese military regime.
When the so-called Cold War simmered in the aftermath of World War II, American leaders had to meet the need for a similar moral understanding, one that eventually challenged domestic practices like legalized racial discrimination that contradicted the ideas of justice and individual merit we sought to defend against Communist totalitarianism.
Moral Understanding of Terrorism
As we deal with the challenge of terrorism in the world today, it's obvious that we need the same kind of moral understanding. It's also obvious that we have no leaders capable of articulating it, or willing to do so if they could.
Yet in principle, terrorism represents a dagger aimed at the very heart of the American idea of just government. Terrorists, whatever their ideology, religion, or motivation, seek to rule by intimidation, governing others by fear without regard for liberty. By targeting innocent lives in order to foment terror, they prove their rejection of what we regard as the fundamental principle of justice — that all are created equal, with a right to life that doesn't depend on the goals and stratagems of others. In order to understand the true cause of our fight against terrorism, therefore, we should be asked to consider that what is at stake is the very basis of self-government and its claim of equal justice for all, in America and everywhere else.
Of course, in order to be clear about the current threat to our liberty, American leaders would have to acknowledge the principles on which our free way of life is based. They would have to clarify the contradiction between these principles and the terrorist's disregard for the claims of innocent human life. But in the process, they would also have to highlight the conflict between those principles and our own domestic practices, just as our opposition to communist totalitarianism during the Cold War highlighted the incongruity of legalized racial discrimination in America.
Though our leaders are loath to speak of it, the supposedly legal destruction of human life in the womb, like terrorism, casts aside the claims of innocent human life. But in doing so, it exceeds the wickedness of terrorism by as much as our special obligation to our offspring exceeds our obligation for the welfare of humankind in general. Supposedly-legalized abortion also defeats the ultimate purpose of our Constitution — which commits us to secure the blessings of liberty not just for ourselves, but for our posterity as well.
The inability or unwillingness of our leadership to articulate what is truly at stake in the war brought upon us by terrorism has prevented our leaders from clarifying, or even understanding, what must be the ultimate goal of our war effort: to make clear that the renunciation of involvement in or support for terrorism in any form is the price of admission to the decent community of nations. In the absence of clarity about our true goal, our leaders have resorted to inadequate and impractical substitutes.
Lack of Moral Vision
We get arguments that implausibly assume that we can, in what amounts to an historical minute, establish democratic practices in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan that have no culture of democratic self-government — or other arguments that assume that we can wish away the threat to our way of life by establishing "exit strategies" and timetables for troop withdrawals from Iraq. (This latter despite the fact that the conflict began on the fateful day that revealed our foes' determination and capacity to come to America to kill us.)
Though bad leadership, bad politics, and the media's appetite for battle scenes give the impression that we are engaged in a "war in Iraq," the fight against terrorism is more broadly focused on the Middle East because that region has been dominated by regimes that reject the foundational premise of democratic self-government in America — i.e., that God created man for liberty, not fanatical subservience. Feeling the absence of moral vision, some of our leaders have tried to focus on Islamic extremism as the wickedness against which we can galvanize our moral will. But we do not fight terrorism because it is Islamic. We fight Islamic extremists because they routinely practice terrorism.
Our fight is not about religious differences. It is a conflict of conscience between people of goodwill who, whatever their religion, believe that each human life has an equal and intrinsic moral worth determined by the Creator God, and people of evil intent who believe that their grievance, cause, or faith justifies methodical and systematic murder on whatever scale they choose.
This difference of conscience translates into differences in other areas, beginning with the conduct of war. Decent folks accept the idea that, in war, rules must be observed to prevent wanton killing. The others practice wanton killing so that fear dictates the rules. People who believe in the equal and intrinsic worth of each human life also reject the routine practice of torture, whether in making war or in law enforcement. And once they think it through, they realize that the equal and intrinsic worth of each human life requires governmental and political practices that respect the integrity of each human person, so that no one has the claim to own or govern another without their consent. This understanding is what connects the war against terror with the long-term effort to encourage democratic self-government.
If our leaders had properly articulated this connection in principle, we would realize that the challenge in Iraq and elsewhere is not to establish the outward show of self-government in the short term, but to work with and encourage those who are committed in principle to the understanding of equal moral dignity that is the root of its long-term growth and development.
With this in mind, there's one thing we could be sure of: no one connected with terrorism or tyranny (e.g., Saddam Hussein's government) can be an ally in our cause, or in the cause of peace and liberty in the world at large. This would apply as much to the terrorists who ply their wickedness in the name of the Palestinian people as it does to the Al-Qaeda types who murder in the name of Allah.
The governments, movements, and groups that we can validly deal and work with would have to be "de-terrorized," much as the parties and groups we worked with in West Germany after WWII had to be "de-Nazified" in order to be acceptable. Moreover, instead of cooperating in diplomatic efforts that claim the goal of peace without respecting its main prerequisite, we would insist on respect for the principle of equal and intrinsic moral worth as the first basis for mutual respect among human beings, regardless of their differences, and therefore the first step toward establishing real peace among them.
This would lead to some simple and straightforward policy goals. Oppose terror. Oppose torture and tyranny. Oppose all forms of political as well as economic enslavement. Encourage respect for innocent life. Encourage legal protections against torture and abuse. Encourage the institutions of self-government that provide the only reliable safeguard against political and economic enslavement. These goals are purposely stated in terms of stances and attitudes that we can take, not outcomes that we can impose.
One of the challenges of encouraging liberty in the world is to respect the fact that we can't make it happen for other peoples, and shouldn't try. By keeping this in mind, we would avoid the kind of implausible rhetoric that has too often characterized the present Bush Administration's statements about our goals and purposes in Iraq.
Since we have drawn the sword, our primary purpose ought to be to strike hard at the enemy, which in the aftermath of 9/11 means those who practice or abet terrorism. It's debatable whether our blow against Saddam Hussein effectively aimed at them, but there is surely no dispute that this is the proper aim of military action. Those who help us to achieve it, in Iraq and elsewhere, in effect demonstrate their opposition to terrorism, and help us to promote the alternative of respect for human moral worth.
But the aim of war is first to damage and defeat the foe. If in the process we help the Iraqis to take some steps toward a permanent regime of liberty, that will be a good thing. But it should not be our measure for the success or failure of our efforts.
Keeping Terrorists at Bay
When dealing with terrorists, the first achievement is to force them to make war instead of practicing terror; to prevent them from using their hard violence against soft targets in our country. In Iraq and Afghanistan, we have achieved this. We have forced war upon them, compelling them to fight our armed forces in a theatre well away from the innocent unarmed American civilians they would prefer as targets. In this case, it's surely true that the best defense lies in staying on the offensive. (This is something most leaders among the Democrats prefer to ignore. I guess they would rather score political points at home than keep terrorists at bay abroad. Of course, these leaders will win no political support from careful American voters once they realize that when Democrats say they will bring the troops home, what they are really saying is that they will bring the war home. I can see why our enemies would prefer this, but not why any sensible American would agree with them. Better that our armed forces fight terrorists in Baghdad than that our civilians die at the hands of terrorists in Dallas or L.A.)
Now it may be hard for Americans to accept the notion that their safety depends on accepting a certain level of commitment of armed force abroad in order to live safely here at home. But as long as some forces in this world are organized with terror against us in mind, it may be a fact of life. We must continually disrupt their activities and their intentions before they have a chance to form and implement their deadly schemes against us.
This means, of course, that despite all the talk about a "new world order," and 21st century globalization, we may be faced with an age-old state of affairs, one that requires that a people continually practice and maintain its endurance for conflict in order to preserve the zone of safety in which they can live in peace.
For people encouraged to think of themselves as consumers and couch potatoes, this may be a daunting prospect. But we should remember that this image of Americans is for entertainment purposes only. It doesn't reflect the qualities of the people who have shaped this country's strength and success. We are more than equal to the challenges of this threatening era, but only if our moral vision shapes our understanding not only of the threat, but of the kind of citizens we can once again become in light of it.