One of my 4th of July traditions is to reflect on America while doing my morning run. Since the year between last 4th of July and this one has been marked by the revelation of various evil deeds that was the main theme of my reflections.
America is, some would claim, founded on elevated moral ideals including the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The past year has seen those rights being routinely violated by those in power. We have been lead down a path that includes torture, war, secret prisons and the disregard of the rule of law. This is not a path that America should be walking.
I have heard most of the Presidential candidates justifying this path. Some of them harp constantly about how there are bad people who want to kill us. Some of them strive to outdo the others in saying how tough they will be on terror. They brag about how they will expand prisons and seem to be comfortable with doing almost anything to fight terror.
Terrorists do present a threat to America and it is wise to deal with threats. But, this threat is a relatively minor one when compared with all the other dangers. For example, each year sees the death of about 43,000 Americans due to automobiles. That is equivalent to more than a 9/11 event each month every year. Americans are being killed in Iraq, but far more Americans die each month in America due to lack of health care. Looking at the numbers, we should be focusing less on terror and more on problems that are vastly more dangerous and can, ironically, be dealt with far more cheaply and more effectively. We have poured billions into the war on terror and have gotten little. Imagine those billions poured into health care, education, safer vehicles and other positive things. That would certainly help with the pursuit of happiness and prevent more deaths.
Some people say that we need to fight terror and that we must use whatever means necessary to combat the terrorists. After all, they say, they want to live.
I also want to live. I look both ways when crossing the street, I avoid crazy people and I don’t smoke. Doing things that keep life going are generally smart things to do. But, as Socrates argued centuries ago, it is not merely living that is important. It is living morally and justly that matters.
It is a cold fact that we cannot avoid death. While we can hold off death by our actions and choices, death ultimately claims all living things. No matter how many people we torture, no matter how many secret prisons we build, no matter how many rights we violate, we will all still die. We have no real choice in this. But, we can chose to live in accord with justice and do what is right. We can choose not to torture people. We can choose to try terrorists in accord with the principles of justice and under the rule of law. We can choose to respect the rights that so many Americans have fought and died for. In short, we can choose to be good.
Socrates claimed that no evil can befall a good person. Obviously, he did not mean that good people could not be killed, robbed, or hurt. He meant that a good person cannot be truly harmed-a good person cannot be made to become unjust.
My point is not that we should act like “good” fools and let terrorists kill us. My point is that we can resist them without embracing evil. My point is that it is up to us if we are going to harm ourselves with our hatred and fear. If we choose to be unjust, then (as they say) the terrorists win. When we choose evil and injustice, we do horrible harm to our very souls-far more harm than any car bomb or crashing airplane can ever do. Death will always claim us, but we have to give ourselves to evil.
Happy birthday America.