HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

October 29, 2007
From Liberty Street

Perspective

John Turner


I grow weary of commentary on current events that's divorced from analysis of human history. I'm tired of it even when it's my own. After all, how often can you say that current Republican leadership is a pack of greedy, ill-informed egomaniacs? That's true, but the nature of the truth and how we should respond to it ought to engage our attention more than it does.

In America, we seldom acknowledge that government -- any government -- is for many people an object to be seized. We can get flutter-headed on the Fourth of July if we wish but that doesn't change the truth that the government of the United States is a package of power that can be used for any purpose by the people who control it. The government is always up for grabs and no tradition of liberty or august constitutionalism can stop it from becoming a monster if control doesn't lie in the hands of people who don't want it to be a monster.

All history tells us that governments are inevitably monstrous in many respects. In a sober essay written in the first year of World War I, Sigmund Freud pointed out what governments are driven to do:

The individual in any given nation has in this war a terrible opportunity to convince
himself of what would occasionally strike him in peace time -- that the state has
forbidden to the individual the practice of wrongdoing , not because it desired to
abolish it, but because it desires to monopolize it, like salt and tobacco. The warring
state permits itself every such misdeed, every such act of violence, as would
disgrace the individual man.

Freud was certainly right. The state, without ceasing, wishes to commit criminal acts and have them declared glorious. It wants to massacre hundreds of thousands and then to hold parades celebrating the deed. It wants to bask in the sunlight of sentimental patriotism while shoving into the background the murders that make up the foundation of that patriotism.

Last night on 60 Minutes, Scott Pelley interviewed a former military official about U.S. policy concerning the taking of civilian lives in order to kill somebody the government wants to kill. The operative number is thirty. Fairly low-level officials can slaughter up to thirty uninvolved people in an attempt to kill someone the government wishes to do in, with no questions asked. This is the official war doctrine of the United States government, supposedly backed by the permission of we the people. Did you know that was the doctrine? Have you asked  what law supports it?

Consider this question. If you make a list of the thirty people in the world who mean the most to you, the people you love most fervently -- your sons and daughters, your grandchildren, your sisters and brothers, your closest friends, your wife or your husband -- are you willing to see all their bodies ripped apart by bombs dropped from aircraft in the hope of killing somebody you detest? Is there anybody you hate so much you would pay that price to obliterate him? If there is, then you're a first-rate hater. I don't think there are many of us who would answer yes to that question, and yet, it will be affirmed by people acting in your name dozens of times this very month. But, you will object, they're not going to kill the people I love. That's true. But they're going to kill people somebody loves, and if, by a strange set of circumstances, your loved ones were gathered in the vicinity of a so-called bad guy, the doctrine of your government would snuff out their lives without thinking about who they were. When governments kill, they give scant attention to who their victims are. That's the nature of government.

If we began viewing government as the thing it actually is, and stepped back from the elation of current propaganda, our notions of responsibility would be transformed. We might grasp that the primary duty of citizenship is insisting that government power be used only for intelligent and legitimate purposes. And we would take note of the lesson of history that it is employed only spottily in that way. A good deal of the time, it's simply the plaything of egomaniacs. That's clearly what it has been in the United States for the past several years.

The next time your heart goes pitty-pat as a warplane roars over a football stadium and a gigantic flag is unfurled to the strains of martial music, try to remember that you are a resident of history, and not the paragon politicians flatter you into thinking you are because of the happenstance of being born in a certain time and place. The relation of the citizen to government hasn't altered much throughout history. It is either critical scrutiny or slavery. When we forget that, we choose the latter.


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