Monday, March 20, 2006

On the hit parade

To judge by the reaction to my exercise in critical thinking about Osama, I am in the good company of many doubters -- but also on some people's hit lists.

One person warned me that to people who had no experience of the world abroad I'd be "a Communist." As if to prove that acquaintance's point, private e-mail warned me that I was on the wrong side of the fence.

Imagine them in Anti-Terrorism Central, somewhere in the third basement of the White House (only a stone's throw from my office). "Aha! We spotted one," says a clean cut agent, "shall we set the heat-seeking missiles on kill?" His boss chuckles and shakes his head, "Naw, let's just send Dick Cheney with his hunting rifle."

No, seriously folks ... the reaction reminds me of the warden in Cool Hand Luke. You remember the 1967 film set in a Southern prison, with chain gang and all?

Even if you don't remember the movie, you have surely heard about the chastising of the protagonist, prisoner Luke Jackson (Paul Newman), by the sadistic warden Boss Paul (Luke Askew) in the finest drawl that Askew, a native Georgian, could muster: "What we have he-ah ... is a fail-y-ah to communicate!"

Indeed, what we have here is most definitely a communication failure.

Acknowledging that the Arab World might have a legitimate gripe or two does not amount to conferring the Good Lefty Seal of Approval on suicide bombing targeted on Americans. Rather, it merely raises a few sorely needed questions concerning our assumptions.

There are many, many questions that need be raised and I can't promise to raise them all in one post.

Some of them stem from President Bush lying so spectacularly without being called to account that it becomes easy to doubt everything. For example, how the hell do we, the citizens of the United States, really know that al Qaeda actually was behind the September 11 attacks? Because Dubya said so? Hmm ... let me tell you about a bridge in Brooklyn I can get you at a bargain price.

Another set of queries arise from our overly literal belief in our national fairy tales. Does anyone out there still believe we Americans possess all we do merely by dint of hard work and "know-how" that somehow made this country "great"? No one else worked hard? How come our know-how can't extricate us from our worsening problems right now?

My sense of history tells me that the United States was handed leadership on a platter by a collapsed world in 1945; our country was the sole major industrial nation whose infrastructure was intact. And that was merely because it was too far from its enemies to be bombed.

This is all happenstance. Just as the sheer chance of being born here. Did any of us do anything to be born in New York or Poughkeepsie or Peoria? So what are we doing crowing about being "proud to be American"? We might as well be proud of the color of our eyes.

But there's more. Having been handed the crown of laurels, we acceded collectively to privilege beyond what any people has ever seen before. The overwhelming majority of humanity does not take for granted the embarrassment of riches and resources that we do.

Privilege carries obligations: noblesse oblige -- or as the Bible puts it " ... unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required ... " (Luke 12:48). This is something that the Patrician class of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and even that of George Herbert Walker Bush, for all their shortcomings, used to understand and live out to a mildly heroic measure.

Today's ruling class separates itself ever more from civic responsibility, shouldering a declining share of the burdens of citizenship, in taxes, in effort and in blood. Their poster boy is a sitting president who, unlike his father, cowardly evaded the battle he claimed to support, then shamelessly suckered the poorest, most disadvantaged youths to go die for his lies.

The world is not fooled. The world was with us on September 12. Then our government behaved like a petulant schoolyard bully and lost the respect and trust a leader needs.

In my criticism, I am still hoping there is a way to reverse course and live up to our national vocation, to continue to expand the democratic experiment and to lead world peacefully, by example rather than by force.
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