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Lessons Learned, But Forgotten

There is a belief that times of great evil have the capacity to shatter one's faith or to enhance it, and perhaps at no time in a person's or a nation's life does this quandary arise more notably than in times of war

 

Decades before Lord Acton wrote that "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely," America's founders recognized this tendency in human nature. To ensure that the "inalienable rights" referenced in the Declaration of Independence were given substance so they could endure, these rights were more distinctly articulated in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and a "check-and-balance" system was implemented so no individual or oligarchy would attain too much power in American government.

 

History has proven the veracity of the actions of America's founders. Governments
structured on the premise that people were basically "good" by nature, and thus no "check-and-balance" was needed, frequently evolved into brutal dictatorships.  Now, as the check-and-balance system erodes in America, many of the political tactics inherent in these dictatorships appear to be in prominent use.  Great lies, the exploitation of scapegoats, the promotion of fanaticism that leads to national hysteria, the reduction of complex issues into simplistic propaganda slogans, and the creation of jingoistic nationalism disguised as patriotism predominate national policy and inundate profit-driven media more concerned with sensationalism and superficiality than news. Meanwhile the judicial branch of government, long a bastion of protection for the civil liberties of the unpopular or ostracized, has abdicated its responsibilities, ironically leaving America, over two hundred years later, subservient to the madness of another King George.

 

There is something deceptively soothing about these new phenomena.  When people no longer speak, think or act for themselves, they no longer have to assume any responsibility, nor take any blame, for their actions.  Failure or success resides with a ubiquitous "big brother" and the injustices and erosions of freedom that result are ignored, as long as they happen to "other people."   This "big brother" exists by exploiting the basest instincts in human nature, such as greed, bigotry, conquest, arrogance, violence, hypocrisy, fear, and the lust for power.

 

Because such appeals to the inherent evils of human nature appear to be the primary motivating force in the world, it was difficult for me to view the Iraqi war with anything but ambivalence. While I could commiserate with those who sought to support the troops because young lives were at risk, I feared that "easy" victory would simply fuel the war machine, resulting in more conflicts and ultimately greater casualties in the future. I understood the views of those who argued that dissent in wartime was potentially harmful to troop morale, but I was distressed by the prospect of future war planners taking succor in the belief that, no matter how unjust a war may be, the people will "fall into line" once the fighting begins. I could even comprehend the allure of a "herd" mentality that sacrificed individual thought for conformity. But I also recognized that blindly following the herd can lead one over a precipice just as easily as it can to greener pastures.

 

During wartime, revulsion is frequently expressed against those espousing unpopular opinions, even though those opinions, because of their unpopularity, resound with honesty. Yet similar revulsion is rarely expressed at those whose leap on the bandwagon of popular opinion is fueled by incentives other than sincerity. Recently events have revealed that a subsidiary of Halliburton, a company with ties to Vice President Dick Cheney, was "awarded" a contract to help rebuild Iraq. Likewise for Bechtel, which has given financial support to Bush cronies.  Politicians, celebrities and commentators who have never served in the military are lauded for their "patriotism" when they blatantly exploit the troops to solicit votes, sell records or other merchandise, appear on talk shows, enhance ratings or engage in other activities designed to promote their self-serving interests. Governmental leaders, many of whom also never served in the military, suddenly possess in the eyes of the populace omniscience so unthinkable in peacetime that "patriotism" dictates they be unquestioningly obeyed, even while people in other nations are condemned for demonstrating the same allegiance to their leaders.  Most tragically, and perhaps most inexplicably, people who would vociferously protest a penny increase in their income tax bill express no similar outrage when billions of dollars are spent, and young lives are sacrificed, to promote a government's lie.

 

What the Iraqi war illustrates is that human affairs, on both the national and global level, rarely give rise to conflicts between "good and evil," but instead spawn conflicts between greater and lesser evils. Can one imagine, for example, the reaction in America if a president's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was the recitation of passages from the Sermon on the Mount about forgiving one's enemies, blessing the peacemakers and turning the other cheek? Can one equally imagine, in the aftermath of the Iraqi war, a government following the edicts of the Taoist religion by declaring that triumph in war should be treated like a funeral, because the mere existence of war should make humanity mourn. Instead the world is "treated" to a bellicose Bush in military fatigues declaring victory from the deck of an aircraft carrier.  In fact, as I watched the obsessive drive towards war orchestrated by the Bush administration, the first analogy I thought of was gangster Al Capone's destruction of the "Bugs" Moran gang in the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre. While Capone was certainly "victorious," nobody believed there was anything noble about a more powerful tyranny destroying a weaker one.

 

Perhaps the world needs those individuals willing to sell their souls for a few years of power, who wrap warfare in the garments of respectability, and who can work to make peace, and those who seek it, appear to be the aberration instead of the norm.  Unfortunately a world controlled by "the lesser of two evils" is still controlled by evil and only a fragile chasm needs to be traversed before a nation endorses with its deeds the very actions it claims to abhor with its words.  So while America's people watch their leaders pay homage to freedom and democracy in Iraq, they remain oblivious to the theft of freedom and democracy at home.  Only when they reach for their wallets or purses will they discover the robbery, and by then it will be too late.

 

In fact, in perhaps one of the most ironic twists, the Bush administration is planning on following the example of the rest of the industrialized world by instituting a "system of universal health care" for the Iraqi people. While this is a concept I can and do support, the irony resides in the reality that Americans do not enjoy this same right. As one of the
millions of uninsured Americans, I cannot help but wonder, when I am ignoring an ache, pain or fever because I cannot afford a physician visit, why my health and my life are not as important to those in power.

 

Nevertheless what has enhanced my faith during these trying times in which we live is the knowledge that tyrants of whatever stripe always make one critical error.  They forget that worldly power is constrained by the limits of mortality.  So while the world may ignore, or even reward, their evil, they still may be compelled to one day atone for their crimes.  Logic would seem to dictate this outcome, else those who are altruistic, compassionate and honest are fools for permitting such virtues to inhibit the greed, selfishness, cruelty and corruption of spirit that seem to be essential for worldly, or at least political, success.

 

Still, as this evil persists in the world, it is not difficult to understand why the founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu, turned his back on humanity and disappeared into the wilderness. Nothing really separates modern-day humans from their primitive ancestors except the capacity to kill in greater magnitude, and the ability to view the slaughter from a living room recliner instead of the coliseums of Rome. Perhaps the lesson of mortality is that truth and justice reside not in what people hear or see, but rather in what they don't.

 

David R. Hoffman

An attorney and college instructor in the United States

 

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