Implication for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

John Turner


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I may be the only person to find a relationship between the hanging of Saddam Hussein and the shooting of Darrent Williams, the Brocos football player. After all, the events occurred worlds apart and in very different contexts. Even so, for me the connection is not only likely, it's indubitable.

Both men were slaughtered by people for whom the idea of solving problems by killing comes readily to mind.

We like to tell ourselves there's a chasm separating punks who murder someone after a quarrel in a nightclub and officials who send armies in support of national policies. And there is in one respect. The officials kill a lot more people than the punks do. But with respect to morality, or intelligence, or wisdom is there a big difference? In most cases I can't see it.

Both thugs and officials are operating from the same concept: that if someone does something you don't like a good way to take care of your resentment and frustration is to kill him. There's little thought given to the consequences that will flow from the killing, by either thug or official.

The killing solution needs to be shoved way down on our list of priorities -- almost out of sight as far as I'm concerned.  There's ongoing puzzlement about why we have a vastly higher murder rate than any other developed country. Has anyone suggested it could be because we have leaders who resort to killing more quickly than the officials of any other Western democracy.

We need to recall that in the minds of the thugs, the president is their leader too.


Bad Manners

On CBS News last night, Katie Couric informed us that the hanging of Saddam Hussein was supposed to be a "solemn and dignified" event. Now, however, we see it was marred by people taunting him just before he was done in. I'm trying hard to get this but I don't think I'm going to make it. You put a man on a platform with a hole in it. You knot a big rope around his neck and kick him into the hole. You snap his neck. That's solemn and dignified. But if you call him names, that's disgraceful.

We have a curious code of manners. I wonder who wrote those phrases for Katie. Might she have written them herself? Whoever did it, did he or she pause over the terms "solemn" and "dignified"? Was there just a momentary flickering in the brain that said, "Wait a minute. Hanging is solemn and dignified?"

Moments of reflection about the meaning of words seem almost to have disappeared from our public discourse. Either there's no time for them, or no mind. No matter which, the degradation of language continues to inject decay into the social psyche.


False Virtue

Over the next couple weeks we will hear much about bipartisanship. And as it becomes evident there is no such force in American politics there will be wails bemoaning its absence and the lack of the so-called comity that goes with it.  All of it will be nonsense.

Bipartisanship as a desirable condition is based on the concept that all Americans want the same things for their country and that they divide into parties because of disputes over the best way to get them. It's a fallacious theory.

We do not all want the same things for America and the main reason we have parties is because of conflicting visions of what our country ought to be. Certainly, I don't want the same things for America George Bush wants. If you were to lay out all the political issues confronting the American electorate I doubt there would be overlap between Bush and myself on even ten percent of the items. To put it bluntly, his vision of an earthly paradise is my nightmare of earthly hell. So what is it we're going to be bipartisan about?

The best we can hope for in Washington, and the best we ought to hope for, is that each side will pursue its goals honestly and that modest standards of courtesy will pervade the disputes. Even that may not be possible, however, because there are partisans in our political fights for whom honesty is a bad thing.

Politics is about advantage for some to the disadvantage of others. As soon as we get that simple truth clear in our minds, the various forces can pursue their interests as intelligently and as openly as possible.


Assurance

It's a requirement for high-level service in the U.S. government not only to claim that you know things you don't know but also to claim that you know things nobody can know. We see this rule at work most often now in proclamations about what would happen if U. S. troops were withdrawn from Iraq.

Nobody knows what would happen. That's clear. But that doesn't hold our officials back from certainty about the disaster that would ensue if Americans weren't there to take care of things.

The problem currently, though, is that disaster is occurring with the the troops there. I can't say for sure it wouldn't get worse if they left, but we're never going to find out until they do.

At the moment we have a stasis in the country, a stasis of violence, murder, misery, and oppression. There's no reason to think that's going to change much over the next few years as long as the American military continues to occupy the country and keeps a nominal government propped up in the Green Zone. There can be no legitimate Iraqi government with the Americans present.

So, as far as I can see, we have two options. Announce that the occupation will last indefinitely and start trying to run the country directly. Or, get out.


National Dessert

Watching the Sunday morning talk shows calls to mind Nietzsche's judgment that ancient Greece had become a culture worthy of destruction because it had let its lowest instincts overpower its noble values. That, he said, constituted an irresistible death wish. I'm not sure about classical Greece, but how about current America? Has it become a culture worthy of destruction. And if so, what is its irresistible death wish?

The answer that comes readily is security above all else. Security above freedom. Security above knowledge. Security above exploration. Security above achievement. All these have been evident in the United States over the past six years. Taken together they make up the totality of the Bush administration.

They may doom society to decay not only because they are unattainable but also because they are uninteresting. Cultures collapse because they become hideously bored with themselves.

Imagine being condemned to an eternal conversation in a room with Dick Cheney, George Bush, and Denny Hastert. No spark of imagination. No flashes of wit. Nothing but the spewing of who they would like to destroy. Suicide in such a case would be sublime release. To expire, to cease to exist, would be the grandest thing one could reach for.

Are we sentenced for the rest of our cultural lives to have faces like these preaching at us from TV screens, glaring at us from the front pages of diminishing newspapers? What else to do then except cash in our cultural chips, let the game go to smash, and look to some other portion of the globe for human aspiration?

This is not a prediction, just a question.




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Harvard Square Commentary, Jaunuary 8, 2007