Friday, November 11, 2005

The Unexamined Life

The news this week brought together two seemingly unrelated stories that are signs of the times, although it's tough to tell just which way they're pointing. First, Tony Blair last a key vote when parliament voted down a security bill. Closer to home, an appeals court judge told the Tampa Bay Bucs to stop patting down patrons upon entering the stadium to watch NFL games.

Defenders of the patdown policy and of Blair's proposal said such restrictions are necessary because "we are at war."

That may be, but I still do not believe it when they tell me that limits on our freedom are necessary to stop the terrorists who, we are told, hate our freedom. Such justifications make me wonder why, if the terrorists hate freedom, they don't attack Canada or Sweden or one of the dozen or so democracies around the world that are arguably more free than we? More than that, though, I do not believe it when they tell me – through their actions – that the unilateral projection of American military power is going to make me safer and the world more free.

If we are to make ourselves more secure and the world safer for freedom, we would do well to turn back to Plato now – not in moderation, but in following the Delphic oracle’s other wisdom: the unexamined life is not worth living. We are living a remarkably unexamined national life. Our actions as a nation since the crimes of September 2001 have been those of a wounded animal, and no wounded animal can make the world safe for itself or for others.

Indeed, if we are, as Aristotle argued, the “rational animal,” our actions since September 2001 have completely dehumanized us. Leaving aside the insanity that is Iraq, so many domestic actions have been completely irrational. Policies promulgated under the so-called Patriot Act and under numerous state and local initiatives only appear rational when one accepts their premise of extreme risk. But the premise itself is based not on reason but on emotions – chiefly deep-seated fear, constant unease and a deep desire to exact revenge for the horrors of September 11.

Fear rises subtly every time one stands in security lines at an airport, yet reason would tell us that any one of us is still far more likely to die in an accident on the way to the airport than to be the victim of any air piracy. This is true even as we see the latest news of bombs in Jordan. Fear rises subtly every time one walks through a security checkpoint to enter a museum on the Mall, yet reason would tell us that we are far more likely to die walking across the Mall from heart disease than we are to be the victims of bioterrorism. Fear rises subtly at each report of another horrific suicide bombing, yet reason would tell us that we are far more likely to be the victim of random street violence in our nation’s capital than we are to be the victim of terrorism, even if we lived in Jerusalem rather than in DC or New York or LA or any other large American city, never mind any smaller American city where the irrational fears still rule the day. And yet we do not question or remark upon the public and economic policies that, in large part, reinforce the life styles that are at the root of the very real dangers of heart disease, traffic congestion, home-grown violence, and so on and on.

And finally, fear rises subtly whenever the national security budget is defended by reference to September 11, yet reason – or, at least, history -- would tell us that we are made far less free and even less secure in a hyper-militarized state than we would be in a nation whose aims were less overtly imperialistic.

Reason has given way to fear, and as my favorite philosopher, the Jedi master Yoda, reminds us, fear is the path to the dark side.

Indeed, if we would pause for a long moment in our head-long rush toward a militarized police state, we might realize that fear is what drives our “enemies” toward the dark side. When internet polls – admittedly far from scientific but nevertheless interesting indicators – suggest that more of the world’s people fear the United States than fear Iraq or North Korea, a people with even a shred of capacity for self-reflection ought at least to be curious about that fact. Rather than ask, as so many did four years ago in wide-eyed naivety, “why do they hate us?” we might better ask “why do they fear us?”

A reasoned dialogue would no doubt raise questions about the rise in religious fundamentalism in the developing world, and the lack of effective public responses to religious violence in many (especially Middle Eastern) nations. That same reasoned dialogue ought to press the nations of the world toward increased responsibility for their home grown fanatics. And that reasoned dialogue may well acknowledge some clearly defined uses for international military force where the fanatics have gained control.

My own deeply held commitment to Christian nonviolence insists that any such role be limited to policing and peacekeeping, but sometimes my Calvinist roots remind me that in a broken world our choices are never between a perfect good and a clear evil, but rather more often between lesser evils. At such points, I reach the end of reason and am reminded that fear is, after all, the opposite not of reason, but of faith. And clearly, such times as these call forth deep faithfulness.

But no matter what questions any reasoned dialogue raises about “them,” if such dialogue raises questions about “us,” about our national life, then we have a responsibility to address them. And clearly such a dialogue will raise questions about such things as America’s role in the vastly unequal distribution of the world’s resources; about such things as the remarkably undemocratic international institutions -- beholden to America and its interests -- that underpin global inequality; questions about such things as America’s role in supporting repressive regimes over the course of the past half century and overthrowing them when their utility is exhausted; and questions about such things as America’s perceived and articulated imperial intentions.

We have a responsibility to address those questions. More than that, as Reinhold Niebuhr's great prayer for serenity reminds us, we have a responsibility to act on them. For if serenity, comes from accepting the things that cannot be changed, then justice and the peace that rests upon justice comes with the strength “to change the things that should be changed.” Until we engage in a faithful and reasoned dialogue, we cannot lay any claim on the wisdom to know the difference.

One could certainly argue that “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” (sic) requires such reflection and such action, and I would agree. But more than that, we owe it to ourselves and our posterity. If an unexamined life is not worth living, nothing short of our national life is at stake. If we are, indeed, rational animals, nothing short of our own humanity is at stake. If we are, after all, children of a loving God, nothing short of our deepest faith commitments and our ultimate concerns are at stake. Let the national examination begin.


John Salmon said...

Happened to come across your site in my referrals. I find it troubling that so many people adopt the mindset, as you seemingly do here, that somehow the West is at fault in this war. The people who are killing innocents are wrong. If we stop them we are right. There is no choice among greater and lesser evils here. Adopting a wartime security footing during a war security is, by definition, Pretending that all the killing isn't happening because your worldview doesn't allow you to condemn evil for what it is is sick and foolish. But far be it from me to take away your right, even in wartime, to spout sophistries.

John Salmon said...

"adopting a wartime security footing during a war is, by definition, necessary"...the middle sentence should read.