I’d like to share a thought with you, not one of my own, but one that deserves broad consideration.

The Atlantic magazine, known earlier as The Atlantic Monthly, recently celebrated its 150th  year of publication by asking a seemingly simple question to a rather diverse group of commentators.

What is the American Idea?

The published respondents, about 40 in all, ranged from the literary world to the scientific, with a couple of politicians and a sole Supreme Court Justice thrown in for good measure.  By and large, the responses were very provoking.

I would like to share just one with you, offered by an author, David Foster Wallace.

Wallace begins his answer by asking his own question-Are some things still worth dying for?-and cites such democratic treasures as an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, due process and transparency.

I would hope we would all say “Yes,” even if cringing at the more personal consequences.

And then he offers a most provoking thought to be considered in a time of on-going struggle with terrorism. I quote him:

“What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, ‘sacrifices on the altar of freedom’?  In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is a part of the price of the American Idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life … sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?”

Think hard on that question.

Think of the liberties we have given up in the past seven years and of more that we are in danger of throwing away in the face of the next attack-and that attack will come. To paraphrase Wallace, no country can totally protect itself from terror “…without subverting the very principles that made it worth protecting.”

As Wallace points out, we easily accept 40,000-plus annual domestic highway deaths because our mobility and the autonomy of the car are deemed worth the price.

At the end of his argument, Wallace asks a very heavy question:

“What are the effects on The American Idea of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, PATRIOT Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance,  Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.  Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer … are they worth it?’

“Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety?  What kind of future does that auger?”


Paul Moroney

Oak Park

PS  If you would like to read the entire article, go to The Atlantic website, Click ARCHIVE and then select the November 2007 edition.

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