My Turn: Don't mistake military might for wisdom

Posted: Tuesday, October 02, 2001

It baffles me how hard presidential hopefuls campaign for what has to be one of the most stressful and, at times, terrifying jobs in existence. When President Bush awoke on Sept. 11 he had no way of knowing the challenge and horror of his hard won job would leap beyond comprehension.

While the rest of us struggle with personal grief and shock, the president has to shoulder the well being of the entire country. In addition to his own emotions he must consider the public's mood and wade through the conflicting advice of countless experts. He must study the curve of history and chart the path of a humane future. He must preside with calm assurance in tumultuous times. He must combine political diplomacy with spiritual wisdom.

I was traveling when the terrorists attacked. Friends of a friend in Portland opened up their home in the gracious manner typical of tragedy. The more I watched the televised images the more I sank into disbelief. Numb beyond thought, I eventually joined my new friends and their neighbors in the back yard. The whisper of birds and sweet evening breeze seemed surreal and untouchable behind the knowledge of the horror unfolding across the continent. One of the neighbors said his current mood was reminiscent of his response to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He recalled his dismay at watching the parades of cheering Americans celebrating the end of the war. And he, all these years later, is still trying to wrap his mind around the instant destruction of entire cities. Images pinwheeled through my mind as I listened to my new friend: Palestinians dancing and cheering in the streets, smoking rubble of our country's largest buildings, smoking rubble of Japan's largest cities, our president's emphatic pronouncement of a war between good and evil.

I cannot see the president's clear distinction between good and evil. For any person forced into the horror of trying to escape a crumbling, burning building I can't imagine that it makes a bit of difference whether a suicide mission or cruise missile precipitated the living hell. I can't imagine that Afghanies or Japanese grief any less than Americans for the loss of their families. It seems the eye for an eye response to violence has been going on so long that we have become blind to our common humanity. It is natural to protect our families, our communities and with the recent and appropriate show of patriotism, our country. However, given the devious determination of terrorist and the long arm of modern arsenals, it appears we must look beyond national borders for any hope of lasting peace. Historically, revolution and civil unrest have been the inevitable result of economic imbalance. Americans represent a few percent of the world population yet we consume 25 percent of the resources. I do not wish to imply there is any justification for the terrorist attacks. I merely suggest that the penetration of our borders provides the opportunity to ponder our place in the global community. Can the planet know peace when the prosperity of a few is propped up by the poverty of many?

I must, unfortunately, further complicate the President's job by adding my voice to the growing chorus questioning his leadership. I sadly agree the cycle of violence (in which the U.S. has been an active participant) may have escalated to the point that additional deaths are needed to stop additional terrorists attacks in the near future. I hold no hope that perpetuating violence can lead to peace and I am alarmed to hear of additional deaths described as "good." There is nothing good about killing fellow humans; not in the name of a fanatical religion, not in the name of patriotism, not even in the name of freedom. (How free is a society locked into a cycle of violence?)

Stephen Benet once said, "We thought, because we had power, we had wisdom." No doubt our country has great power and the ability to use it but let us not delude ourselves that there is anything "good" about additional deaths. Let us not mistake our military might for the wisdom, humility, and global generosity needed to find a lasting peace.


Hank Lentfer is a carpenter and gardener living in Gustavus.

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