The Bush administration rushed into war talking about good and evil. "A calculated, malignant, devastating evil has arisen in our world," proclaimed Attorney General John Ashcroft. "And we know God is not neutral," added President Bush. While few defend Saddam Hussein, people around the world are troubled by the American crusade. The Bush administration has turned a complex international problem into an epic contest between the virtuous and the vicious -- and, of course, one cannot compromise with demons. Invoking God as we occupy other lands is as American as, well, manifest destiny.
Back in 1630, Massachusetts' first governor, John Winthrop, planted a great biblical idea on American soil. Referencing the New Testament's Sermon on the Mount, he said, "We shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people upon us." The good people soon faced their own axis of evil. "It was time for the devil to take alarum," wrote minister Cotton Mather; Satan was rousing the natives to "oppose the possession [of New England] which the Lord Jesus Christ was to have." Well, that's one way to picture your enemy.
In 1636 the colonists launched a war against the "devil worshippers." In the decisive battle, the colonial militia attacked Fort Mystic, a Pequot village enclosed by a wooden palisade. The colonists set the enclosure ablaze, then killed hundreds of men and women as they ran from the flames. The survivors were rounded up and executed, drowned or sold into slavery. The bodies of so many "frying in the fire," noted William Bradford, seemed to many "a sweet sacrifice to God." European churchmen protested, but the Americans paid them no mind.
Through the ages, fighting evil has left little room for mercy or second thoughts. Early reports that we killed 100,000 Iraqis in the Gulf War (or even more, indirectly, through a harsh sanctions regime) made no dent in American politics, though they were big news in Europe. A decade later, we cram suspected al-Qaeda enemies into cages, without rights or due process -- though dozens have turned out to be innocent. The Geneva Conventions' rules do not apply to terrorists. On the other hand, when Iraqis began capturing Americans, administration heavies dashed to the microphones invoking Geneva protocols. To us the moral distinctions were obvious, animated by fine calibrations of good (our soldiers) and evil (al-Qaeda terrorists). To the rest of the world -- a bit less confident about the moral lines -- it looks like plain hypocrisy. Every American generation, certain of its own good intentions, relearns the same lesson: Even when you're sure you're right, listen to your friends. Great wars are won as much by ideas -- by engaging with and persuading others -- as they are on the battlefield.
Franklin Roosevelt illustrated the better alternative. Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, he called the United States to arms. He warned about foreign peril, announced a military mobilization and promised to arm the Allies. Deep into his war speech, Roosevelt declared, "Nations do not fight by armaments alone." He then told the world about the principles we were about to fight for: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. The lyrical message would eventually swell into a kind of anthem for an entire generation. It inspired murals, essays, an opera and those beloved Norman Rockwell paintings.
But here's the key: These freedoms were a dynamic work in progress -- and open to conversation. Wendell Willkie, who had run for president against Roosevelt in 1940, underscored our international aspirations. Willkie flew around the world in order to promote the Allies' cause. He described the tour (in the 1943 best-selling book One World) by recounting conversations with people from Belem to Baghdad. Every nation, large and small, brought its own experiences to the international brotherhood, said Willkie; we had plenty to learn from everyone.
Roosevelt and Willkie, a Democrat and a Republican, shared a foreign-policy attitude. They were clear about American values and solicitous of other countries. Even an ailing Roosevelt called on foreign leaders.
Of course, every generation also hears the more burly call to arms. Henry Luce, the editor of Life magazine, scorned soft consensus building. America alone could save the world, he maintained. America would teach, lead and inspire. The 20th century is "The American Century," Luce insisted, and the whole world would be better for it.
The two strategies have long wrestled for control of American foreign policy. But today the Bush administration reverberates with Luce's faith. "The United States and only the United States can see this effort through to victory," Vice President Dick Cheney told the Council on Foreign Relations.
With high-handed declarations that the only choice was "either with us or against us," the Bush administration drove away our friends and evaporated great reservoirs of international good will. It also made its own war more difficult by cutting off a northern front (when Turkey said "no") and perhaps even a western one (from Saudi Arabia). We now watch as the Arab street cheers an Iraqi tyrant while Europe reverberates with anti-American protests. We are losing the most important battle -- the one for hearts and minds around the world.
The Bush administration's righteous streak flows out of a deep religious current. Other Western nations moved from religious to secular; the United States leaped -- leaps -- from revival to revival. When zeal wanes and American society begins turning secular, another muscular religious movement always seems to burst onto the political scene.
The Rev. Jerry Falwell described the latest surge as it grew in the late 1970s, saying, "Satan had mobilized its forces to destroy America ... . God needed voices raised to save the nation from moral decay." The born-again fervor rekindled global aspirations that had been lost in the 1960s. President Ronald Reagan proudly restored the Puritans' great metaphor, the City upon a Hill. We -- Christian America -- must stand for good in the world. If other nations were hesitant (or self-interested, or pusillanimous), we would be strong. If we were threatened, we would arm ourselves and fight.
Every war eventually boomerangs. International crises rewrite domestic politics. This pattern goes back to colonial days. Those early wars with the American Indians, for example, triggered New England's witchcraft delusions. As historian Mary Beth Norton recently showed, the anxiety of fighting devils on the frontier got colonists searching for devil worshippers in their own villages. World War I had the attorney general chasing "hyphenated Americans." It also pushed Prohibition into the U.S. Constitution as a way of controlling blacks in the south and foreign workers in the cities. World War II led directly to the Red Scares. (The House un-American hearings began in 1947 with a box-office smash when lawmakers grilled Hollywood stars.) And those paroxysms were just the start. Wartime anxieties repeatedly pushed Americans to eye their neighbors with suspicion.
Now comes international terrorism, and the Bush administration ratchets up the tough approach. Unsettling reports trickle in from all directions. In Providence, R.I., police drag a Sikh off an Amtrak train because his ceremonial knife looks like a terrorist weapon. In upstate New York, police arrest a lawyer for trespassing when he dons a peace shirt at the mall. Local libraries sprout signs warning patrons that their reading habits will be monitored thanks to the USA PATRIOT Act. Federal agents round up immigrants without offering them due process.
Some of this is silly (count on congressional Republicans to rename their French fries). But the consequences cut deep. You'd better dash, I tell an Indian colleague who is late for a plane. "Brown people don't dash in airports," he shoots back. This is no time to stand out from the white crowd.
If history is a reliable guide, we've only seen the beginning. The war crisis -- crises if bellicose neoconservatives get their way -- changes the political tone. Most commentaries focus on how a successful war will boost the president's agenda, from reforming Medicare to enacting more tax cuts. And it might. But there are more profound consequences: War fosters xenophobia, breaks domestic politics into us-versus-them and threatens basic civil liberties. Fearful overreaction harms us more than bombs or terrorists.
Three centuries later, the witch-hunters have a fluent response: This is no time to fret about civil liberties; we're not chasing imaginary witches, and the dangers are real and (always) unprecedented. Today the call to action echoes a terrible truth: Terrorists murdered more than 3,000 Americans on September 11. Conservative historians use the same logic to restore Sen. Joe McCarthy's reputation -- there really were communists in the 1950s.
For that matter, there really were practicing witches in Salem Village. But witches are not what make a witch-hunt. We call it a witch-hunt when people toss aside their own norms of justice in the search for hidden subversives. In Salem the ministers ignored their standards of evidence. That was also McCarthy's sin. And it is precisely the danger that Ashcroft and Co. pose today, as they contemptuously dismiss our basic legal norms.
Once the crisis passes, Americans grow ashamed of their witch-hunts. The greatest harm never comes from the subversives; it comes -- as Cotton Mather said in 1691 -- from the hot, blind "buffet" with which we "maul one another in the dark" as we chase our enemies. Modern paroxysms leave a more active legacy. Even after the danger passes, there is usually a new bureaucracy open and eager for business. For further details, see the Frank Church hearings on CIA excesses, the fine print in the PATRIOT Act or the authority granted the Department of Homeland Security.
The Other Legacy of 9-11
It does not have to be all witch-hunting and zero tolerance, though. Wars have also inspired great American campaigns for social justice -- sometimes at the same time that they provoked our witch-hunts.
Every civil-rights movement, for example, sprang directly out of war. The first tentative action against southern lynching came during World War II, as the Japanese jeered our "white regime" and African Americans led by A. Philip Randolph threatened a march on Washington to demand fair employment. The Cold War proved an indispensable backdrop to the movement in the 1950s and '60s. "In a world that is half colored," warned President Harry Truman, "the top dog ought to clean his own house." When President Dwight Eisenhower dispatched paratroopers to integrate schools, he lamented that "our enemies" were using segregation "to misrepresent our whole nation." Fighting tyrants abroad, as Phillip A. Klinkner and Rogers M. Smith put it in The Unsteady March, rouses American egalitarians.
Today's political leaders show no inclination to indulge social revolutions. Yet the political culture is brimming with opportunity for an idealistic opposition. First, there are 250,000 Americans risking the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq. But more important, conservatives have no business owning the memory of 9-11. Recall the haunting images of that awful day. One picture after another caught New Yorkers gaping up with horror. It was a stunning portrait of America: every color, every nationality, every class and every kind of dress standing together in tight bunches with the same terrified look on their very different faces.
That day was full of American heroes. Firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians, chaplains -- workers, mostly from the public sector and mostly members of unions, who put others' lives ahead of their own in the scramble from the burning buildings. People flocked to New York to help, many more than New York could use. All of these memories remind us of our formidable joint community. Here -- in these portraits -- stands a robust American us.
President Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural address could have been written today. He said, "If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other." Here's the perfect context for a new push toward social justice. President Bush has seized 9-11 for his own agenda, repeatedly flourishing the date in his pre-war press conference. But 9-11 could more accurately symbolize a robust new sense of community -- celebrating "us" rather endlessly fearing "them."
The question that flows from our current condition -- from us and them, terrorism and freedom, war and peace -- is what we owe one another. How many of those people who rushed to help had no health insurance? What are we doing to assist our local communities through their fiscal crises? Is every child getting a decent education? Every old person a secure retirement? Why do we tolerate such enormous divisions in wealth and poverty? What might we do to mitigate them? The president squanders a $75 billion down payment for war in Iraq. How much might we spare for New York, Atlanta or Peoria?
These questions may seem irrelevant with conservative Republicans in command of our political institutions. But the cultural moment could nourish a progressive revival.
President Bush repeatedly invokes God. Dreams of manifest destiny lead his administration to ignore friends and demonize enemies. Our leaders rush into wars, scorn international friends and chase down foreigners in every corner of the nation. In the process they squander our legacy -- international good will, national wealth, local community and civil liberties.
But another moral vision, just as powerful, echoes from past wars. You can find it in the Declaration of Independence, in the "Four Freedoms" and in the spirit of every group that has taken to the streets in the name of peace, liberty or social justice. Here stand what Abraham Lincoln (speaking of moralists) called "the better angels of our nature." We need to invoke those angels more fervently today than ever.