THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING REPUBLIC
It happened again this week. I turned on cable news, and I heard the same argument about international issues that was being tossed about a couple of months ago regarding our domestic agenda. The argument continues to be voiced by so-called “conservative” commentators, though I can hardly believe that Americans can call themselves conservative and yet propound this idea. It strikes me as more suitable for a conservative from, say, the Republic of Venice than from the Republic of the United States of America.
The idea, stated simply, is that this is such a crucial moment in our nation’s history that we can’t afford to be distracted. On the domestic front, we need to think about one thing and one thing only (stimulating the economy). And on the international front, we need to think about one thing and one thing only (preventing terrorists and other evil doers from obtaining WMDs). Any effort to consider taking significant action on another topic is counterproductive, for it threatens to remove our intense focus from where it must be.
It’s ironic to hear conservatives make this argument after their favorite President, Ronald Reagan, attempted to reshape the agenda on numerous fronts. Why weren’t they complaining then? Well, you know the supposed answer: those weren’t such momentous times. It was “morning” in America under Reagan, whereas if we don’t watch out, it’s about to be midnight under Obama.
The other irony, which I alluded to above, is that conservatives love to talk about how “great” America is. Just as their so-called enemies chant “Allah Akbar,” conservatives respond with the English equivalent of “America Akbar.” Muslims have their notion of “Manifest Success,” and American conservatives have their notion of “Manifest Destiny.” Such parallels! But the funny thing is that Muslims at least mean it when they say God is great. Conservatives mouth the words that this is a truly “great” and vast Republic, but when you tell them that we are great enough to take on multiple issues at once … to address our world’s global warming problem, and our faltering health care system, and our embarrassing dalliance with torture … they increasingly won’t hear of it. It’s as if they lived in a little City-State, where a relatively small group of people needed to be involved in every meaningful decision.
Do the conservatives not realize that this is a nation of more than 300 million people with a gross domestic product of more than $38 billion each DAY? That ought to make us big enough to tackle more than one thing at a time, wouldn’t you think?
The latest opportunity for conservatives to whine about spreading ourselves too thin arose out of the torture debate. Predictably, Americans on the left wing of the political spectrum are calling for an investigation of who was behind the torture policies of the last Administration. They want to bring to justice anyone who broke the criminal law, and to sufficiently air the specifics of who, what, when, where and why, so that this nation never again gets involved with torture.
In response to the folks on the left who are calling for action against torture and its perpetrators, many arguments can be – and have been -- raised. Dick Cheney, for one, would claim that what most of us call “torture” has proven necessary to protect Americans from further terrorism. Others point out that if we were ultimately to criminalize aggressive foreign policies every time a new Administration wanted to change courses, we’d chill American Governments from ever taking the bold, proactive moves that are sometimes necessary to nip evil in the bud.
I have definite opinions on these issues, some of which can be gleaned from reading Moses the Heretic, where I touch on the topic in a fictional format. Unfortunately, as a Senior Trial Counsel with the United States Department of Justice, I do not think it would be responsible for me to opine on the topic in a public blog. I make a conscious effort to avoid any subject that is so closely linked to the work of the Department.
That said, I have no qualms responding to the troglodytes who maintain that we cannot afford to deal with this or any other “distraction” at a time when our economy is teetering on the brink and the Taliban is encroaching on Islamabad. Here’s my response: right now, in addition to working weekdays on Department of Justice litigation, I am preparing to: give an address tonight at a mosque on the subject of Abraham and Muslim/Jewish dialogue, lecture next week at a synagogue concerning Spinoza’s God, lead a Jewish retreat the following week dedicated to the principles of Uniqueness and Unity in Judaism, and write an essay on the philosophy of Santayana. That’s just me – not the entire Government of the United States of America, which the last time I checked has infinitely more resources to devote to multi-tasking.
Speaking of Santayana, it was he who famously coined the phrase “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Well, I can almost assure you that if we do not carefully examine what happened in the last eight years with respect to torture, we will definitely forget all about it. (Just like we seem to have forgotten the Vietnam War in time to start a new misadventure in Iraq.) Then, soon enough, we will repeat what we did.
Maybe we want to repeat Cheney’s policies on torture. Maybe we want never to repeat them, but also not to prosecute those who perpetrated them. I’ll leave those issues up to you to resolve. All I ask is that we consider them carefully and publicly, and acknowledge that the choices we make will help define our essence as a nation. Also, let’s please not insult our vast, populous republic by claiming that it’s not up to the task of taking on this matter at the same time as other pressing concerns. If you must level that insult, I suspect you’d be happier in a very tiny Republic where the government knows its limitations. Here in Obama’s America, we are thankfully much more ambitious.