From Liberty Street: The Crucial Choice

John Turner

Every living entity, be it plant, animal, human, or society has to deal with resistance. If it didn't it would become completely flaccid and, eventually, fade away out of weakness. Often, the force we have to resist is supplied by nature and we have no choice about it. To get out of bed in the morning, we have to struggle against gravity, and if we don't we lie there and starve to death.

Societies though, for the most part, pick the constraints they are going to devote their efforts to resisting. And the choices they make determine not only who they are but whether they will continue to flourish on the earth.

Over the past half century, our society, the United States of America, has made a series of unwise choices which have now brought us to a crisis. We need badly to rethink what we've done and make fairly dramatic changes.

Why the people of the United States decided to select abstract boogymen as the monsters against which we would direct our treasure is a complicated question of history which will probably never be fully resolved. However, what we've done is fairly clear. We need to see our recent history for what it has been if we're going to make corrections.

During most of my life, Communism was the great threat. It was commonly said that it would be better to die than to give way to it. Within mainstream political discourse, there was little question about how we should use our national energies. Resisting Communism stood so high above other goals they couldn't be mentioned in the same breath. Few voices asked if there really was any such thing as Communism of the sort our leaders inveighed against. And those few who did were brushed off as either fanatics or fellow travelers.

Now we know that the Communism of our fantasies was never real. That's not to say we didn't have legitimate differences with the Soviet Union, some of which required either the use or the threat of force. But they did not require the all-out, over-the-top, virtually crazy response that many of our leaders demanded. Certainly, they did not require the slaughter of innocent people in Argentina, Central America, Vietnam, and in fact all around the globe that was carried out in the name of resisting the great evil. We will continue to pay for the unwise things our government did during the Cold War for at least as long as any of us are still alive.

Now, the dominant political voices tell us we are engaged in another great struggle against overweening evil, the global war against terrorism. And, again, this Moloch against which we are supposed to expend our principal treasure does not exist in the form our leaders say it does. And again, in a frenzy to fight against this ultimate horror, we are doing things for which we will have to pay for generations to come.

The sad truth is that the war against terror is primarily a war against the wretched of the earth. What we seem to want to do more than anything else is to kill people in the squalid slums of Baghdad. That's what our actions tell the world.

Think of the economic nexus when an American soldier goes into an Iraqi neighborhood seeking to kill an insurgent. What is the ratio of cost between what the soldier is wearing and carrying and what the insurgent has? It not hard to guess any time you see a photograph of an American military man standing over a corpse he has recently divorced from life. The soldier looks like something out of a science-fiction monster movie. And the dead man exhibits a blood-soaked tee shirt. The ratio? Maybe fifty to one. It's not a cost difference we can sustain indefinitely. Nor can we stand for long the effects of the photographs that speed almost instantaneously around the world proclaiming to all its citizens what we are and what we are trying to do.

We need to straighten out our thinking about what the real threats are and how we should apportion our efforts in resisting them. Right now we are spending nearly eight billions dollars a month to maintain a military occupation of Iraq. And there's no evidence the expenditure is making us stronger in any way.

Ask yourself such simple questions as whether your life is actually threatened as much by anyone in Iraq as it is by irresponsible driving here at home, or cancer, or industrial pollutants, or domestic crime and violence, or corporate greed, or an absurd health care system, or the high price of certain drugs, or the uncertainty of a safe food chain. As soon as those questions are entertained seriously the thought that we should reorient our sense of danger, and our efforts to thwart it, becomes almost inevitable.

Who we choose as our principal opponents goes a long way towards identifying who we are. And choosing as the big enemy an abstraction with little reality behind it says we are a radically innocent people ready to ride our innocence into full disaster.



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Harvard Square Commentary, January 8, 2007