Thursday, August 25, 2011

Everything Potent Is Dangerous

Wallace Stegner was one of the true greats of 20th century American letters.  Although no writer is likely ever to express "what I believe" perfectly, Stegner's contribution to Edward R. Murrow's 1950s radio show -- This I Believe -- is as close as anyone has yet come. 

Everything Potent is Dangerous

by Wallace Stegner

It is terribly difficult to say honestly, without posing or faking, what one truly and fundamentally believes. Reticence or an itch to make public confession may distort or dramatize what is really there to be said, and public expressions of belief are so closely associated with inspirational activity, and in fact so often stem from someone’s desire to buck up the downhearted and raise the general morale, that belief becomes an evangelical matter.

In all honesty, what I believe is neither inspirational nor evangelical. Passionate faith I am suspicious of because it hangs witches and burns heretics, and generally I am more in sympathy with the witches and heretics than with the sectarians who hang and burn them. I fear immoderate zeal, Christian, Moslem, Communist, or whatever, because it restricts the range of human understanding and the wise reconciliation of human differences, and creates an orthodoxy with a sword in its hand.

I cannot say that I am even a sound Christian, though the code of conduct to which I subscribe was preached more eloquently by Jesus Christ than by any other. About God I simply do not know; I don’t think I can know.

However far I have missed achieving it, I know that moderation is one of the virtues I most believe in. But I believe as well in a whole catalogue of Christian and classical virtues: in kindness and generosity, in steadfastness and courage and much else. I believe further that good depends not on things but on the use we make of things. Everything potent, from human love to atomic energy, is dangerous; it produces ill about as readily as good; it becomes good only through the control, the discipline, the wisdom with which we use it. Much of this control is social, a thing which laws and institutions and uniforms enforce, but much of it must be personal, and I do not see how we can evade the obligation to take full responsibility for what we individually do. Our reward for self-control and the acceptance of private responsibility is not necessarily money or power. Self-respect and the respect of others are quite enough.

All this is to say that I believe in conscience, not as something implanted by divine act, but as something learned from infancy from the tradition and society which has bred us. The outward forms of virtue will vary greatly from nation to nation; a Chinese scholar of the old school, or an Indian raised on the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita, has a conscience that will differ from mine. But in the essential outlines of what constitutes human decency we vary amazingly little. The Chinese and the Indian know as well as I do what kindness is, what generosity is, what fortitude is. They can define justice quite as accurately. It is only when they and I are blinded by tribal and denominational narrowness that we insist upon our differences and can recognize goodness only in the robes of our own crowd.

Man is a great enough creature and a great enough enigma to deserve both our pride and our compassion, and engage our fullest sense of mystery. I shall certainly never do as much with my life as I want to, and I shall sometimes fail miserably to live up to my conscience, whose word I do not distrust even when I can’t obey it. But I am terribly glad to be alive; and when I have wit enough to think about it, terribly proud to be a man and an American, with all the rights and privileges that those words connote; and most of all I am humble before the responsibilities that are also mine. For no right comes without a responsibility, and being born luckier than most of the world’s millions, I am also born more obligated.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Witness Has Rights

     What is the best line in A Few Good Men – the classic courtroom drama starring Tom Cruise (as Navy defense lawyer Lt. Kafee) and Jack Nicholson (as Col. Jessup, the commander of Marine ground forces, Guantanamo Bay)?  Next to “You can’t handle the truth,” most people would probably choose the climactic moment when Jessup confesses to the crime of ordering the savage beating (resulting in death) of a young troubled Marine under his command:

     Lt. Kafee: Did you order the Code Red?

     Col. Jessup: You’re goddamned right I did!

     But this is not, I respectfully submit to my colleagues of the Bar, the best line in the movie.  The best line is what Lt. Kafee says immediately after Jessup’s confession:

      May it please the Court.  I suggest the jury be dismissed so that we can move to an immediate Article 39 session.  The witness has rights.

     Jessup is then immediately read his rights.  For this small town American lawyer, that’s the goose-bump moment.  That’s the lump-in-the-throat moment. 

     What this small town American lawyer is going to say next will offend some readers.  At a minimum, in this community of four major military installations, it will sound undiplomatic.  But I’m not a diplomat and this needs to be said:  Our military forces stationed abroad – in places like Guantanamo Bay (of all places!) – do next to nothing to protect our constitutional liberties as set forth in the Bill of Rights and elsewhere.

     I will try to explain.  But first, back to the movie.

     On the witness stand, Jessup is cocksure, condescending, and absolutely certain that Marines like him are the only thing keeping lazy & complacent pansies like Kafee from losing their liberties.  Jessup lectures Kafee that we live in a world with walls and that those walls need people like him to stand guard.  The implication is that if the walls go unguarded – anywhere on the planet, apparently – then some boogey-man aggressor will cross a vast ocean, install a despotic form of government, and rip up the U.S. Constitution.

     And who is going to protect us, asks Jessup, from this terrible (and for some reason, always imminent) fate:

     [to Kafee] You? You, Lt. WEIN-berg?

     Actually, Col. Jessup, it is Lt. Weinberg who will protect us.  Because here’s the thing.  None of the tyrants of the 20th century posed any risk to the constitutional rights of Americans.  Hitler could not cross the English Channel.  (Conversely, think of the almost inhuman effort involved when the Allies crossed in the other direction on D-Day.)  He was not going to cross the Atlantic Ocean – ever – and institute unlawful search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  There was no possibility that he would ever come here to institute a state religion or to eliminate freedom of the press or to implement cruel and unusual punishments.  He was a menace to European civilization, he was a murderer, and he needed to be taken out.  American forces played a crucial and justly proud role in his necessary demise.  But the point here is that his demise had nothing to do with eliminating a threat to the constitutional freedoms of Americans.

     Throughout our history, our armed forces have been sent to fight wars for lots of reasons – some very noble (e.g., taking out the Nazis) and some less so (Crazy Horse would have something to say here).  They have fought for territory (the Indian Wars; the Spanish-American War).  They have fought for access to resources (the two Gulf Wars; the Second World War).  They have fought to defend important allies (the First World War) and to destroy murderous tyrants (the Second World War).  They have fought to expand the country’s geopolitical influence (all of the above, as well as Vietnam, Korea and Afghanistan).  In a few cases, they have even fought for revenge (the Second World War and Afghanistan).  But at least since the Civil War, America’s armed forces have not fought one single war (or even a limited military campaign) in defense of any constitutional freedoms – for the simple reason that those freedoms have never been seriously at risk from external threats.

     I love our military.  They are asked to do a terrible job and get little but empty praise from politicians in return.  But the idea that our military protects our constitutional freedoms is one of the Grand Myths of American History.  Lt. Kafee’s four simple words to the arrogant war-monger Col. Jessup blows that myth out of the water:

     “The witness has rights.” Here, in an American courtroom, and nowhere else.


Friday, August 5, 2011

Visit to Tulum

An excerpt from the vacation journal (July 12, 2011):

Today, we took the bus tour to the Mayan ruins at Tulum (Spanish for “walls,” we were told).  It’s right on the coast about as far south from Playa del Carmen as Cancun is north.  The area of the ruins is amazing but the parking lot and shopping area where you pull up is all tarted up for American tourists with the standard souvenir shacks and aggressive merchants.  At least they have the good sense to put all the touristy stuff a full kilometer inland so as not to ruin the experience – no pun intended.  We bought a small can of insect-repellent for ten bucks (!) because the tour guide on the bus warned us that disease carrying insects were not unheard of in these here parts.  (He probably gets a commission.)
The site of the ruins is breath-taking in its beauty and awe-inspiring in the sense of the “long view” it tends to invoke in a thoughtful observer.  We received a short walking tour where we learned some fascinating history about the Mayans, their religious practices and class system, their first interactions with the Spanish, and their ultimate demise.  They gave a cheezy little "demonstration" of a human sacrifice – a practice they say evolved fairly late in the arc of the Mayan story (which ran, roughly from 1,500 B.C. to 1,500 A.D).  Proper sacrifice technique was critical because the victim had to be alive long enough to see his own heart beating before dying.  And the Mayan God would not be propitiated by anything less than a still-beating heart.
At one point, the tour guide mentioned that it was considered an honor to volunteer for a human sacrifice.  The Mayan priests convinced the lower class rubes (who, incidentally, lived outside the walls of the city) that volunteers went straight to heaven – by-passing the numerous levels of purgatory and heaven-lite that normal schlubbs had to endure on their way up to the penthouse suites of the divine realm.  I found myself literally laughing out loud at this.  Not at the practice, per se, but at how little the holy-roller hucksters have changed.  We may not have any more religions that practice human sacrifice, but the priests, pastors, rabbis and imams still have the masses convinced that special favors await them if they will just do what the holy man says, which today, usually means mailing in lots of cash!  Or, fly an airplane into a tall building and get 72 virgins in paradise.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la mȇme chose.