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June 2007 Issue [Article]

11. The National Character


From the Forum “Undoing Bush”

The undoing of the American character has a long history. It took more than half a century from a summer’s day in August, when the United States used the first weapon of mass destruction, to the lies the Bush Administration used to cover its invasion of Iraq. Had there not been that horrific day at Hiroshima, and had the fear generated by that day not remained in the American consciousness, passed on from generation to generation, the Senate might not have voted Bush the power to invade a sovereign nation. But the World Trade Center had been destroyed by the time the Senate voted, and all the fears hidden away in the soul of a society in love with its comforts had reemerged—nowhere more powerfully than in the man who sat in a classroom full of children on 9/11, paralyzed by the dreadful news. It is not power but fear that corrupts—if not absolutely then deeply, beyond the barrier of reason. The wound of fear has produced six of the worst years in American history, worse even than the Civil War, for there is no Abraham Lincoln to guide the moral character of the country, nor is there a forseeable end to this war: we can no longer be certain even of its geographical or political limits. We are a fearful nation now, led by fearful people. That is the problem we must try to resolve.

In the twentieth century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran minister and author of an important work of philosophy, raised again Aristotle’s question of a disposition to evil. It was not so much a single evil act that concerned Bonhoeffer, a German, as it was the disposition to evil. His concern led him to leave a safe position in the United States and return to Germany to oppose Hitler. He was implicated in the plot to kill the Führer, and Bonhoeffer was sent to prison and then to Flossenbürg concentration camp. Shortly before the liberation of the camp he was stripped, marched through the corridors to the gallows, and hanged. His legacy is that an ordinary man, not a hero, may raise the hero’s question about a government. Do the actions of the Bush Administration and its supporters in the Congress result from a disposition to evil? And if that is not the disposition of all of them, it cannot be denied in the case of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove, Wolfowitz, and even Bush himself.

If their actions had been limited to the prosecution of a war, the war itself might be called a single evil act, but it is part of a congeries of acts that point in at least some persons to a disposition to evil. No more serious charge can be levied against a person or a government. If the charge is correct, Bonhoeffer’s life tells us that we should not wait for historians to make the judgment. And if the judgment is correct, we should try to understand the etiology of evil.

The war did not come about because of a political miscalculation or the misreading of an unavoidable accident. It is not an error. It is an ethical failure that has spread through every department of this administration, into the Congress, and down into the states. In the promoters of the war, Paul Wolfowitz chief among them, we can see that fearsome times, fearful ideas, underlay their history and thinking. For Wolfowitz it was family members killed in the Holocaust. For Cheney and Rumsfeld it was the Cold War, with its constant threat of a new kind of death, one that promised to obliterate all memory of the dead. This new kind of death heralded the final triumph of technology over the human desire to remain, to imagine someone in centuries to come noting that the scattered stones had been worked by an intelligent hand.

We abhor cowardice and revere courage in part for the good courage does the rest of our character. In Ancient Greece it was one of the four cardinal virtues, along with temperance, prudence, and justice, none of which can be found in either the Bush Administration or the majority of the Congress. It is difficult to suggest which is the preeminent virtue or the parent of the others, but one can say with some certainty that a fearful person is unlikely to be temperate, prudent, or just. It is reasonable to think that as courage improves the moral character of a person or a government, fear worsens it. Cutting taxes for the rich and adding billions to the national debt is not prudent. Leaving millions of people, many of them children, in dire poverty in the richest nation in the history of the world is not just. Silencing the press is not temperate, nor is secret surveillance of the citizenry. Failing to put an end to an unjust war because one is afraid, like the Democrats, of repercussions at the polls is anything but courageous.

If this were a sermon I might speak of the other set of virtues: faith, hope, and charity. The government has an overabundance of faith, if by faith we mean the expectation of heaven, but by the same token the government seems to have little hope for a better life on earth, paying no attention to the sickening of the planet, and charity is now utterly without representation in our government. Of the Christian virtues, none has been more demeaned by this government than faith. An ancient definition of the word “antinomy” is the belief that faith gives one permission to commit immoral acts. One such act might be to start a war by invading and occupying a distant country, fomenting a civil war in which noncombatants die at the rate of a hundred a day. A contemporary definition of antinomy is adherence to conflicting principles: imperialism and democracy, as in the plan to impose democracy through military occupation.

The word “virtue,” in either the Greek or Christian sense, does not apply to the Bush Administration or to many of its cohort in Congress. Some of our representatives now lie, others accept bribes, at least one abused children, many participate in fixing elections, and then there is the war. The result has been an American decline so precipitous it may not be reversed for generations, if ever. If there was a method for the accomplishment of the fall, it may have been the wish of the country to engage life at a distance, to think, as I am doing here, of grand issues, the works and minds of philosophers and fools, but not to engage a world where white bread is sold by the slice or a man must labor for an hour to earn a tomato. Distance is a means of managing fear. It was not Hiroshima that made nuclear weapons so fearsome but the ritual of American schoolchildren hiding under their desks as a preparation for war.

The fear that drives the government comes of the inescapable logic of history and self-regard: if we are good and we killed 140,000 people, mainly women and children, on a single morning in summer and soon thereafter repeated the act in Nagasaki as if to prove our willingness to engage in mass destruction, what can we expect of our enemies who are not good? If we responded to an attack on the World Trade Center by invading a country that had no part in the attack and we are good, what can we expect of our enemies who are not good? We are not gods. We have no sense of atonement.

We have become brave in answering pollsters and timid in pursuing action. At the speed of the world now, another eighteen months of a government with a disposition to evil is time enough for the compounding of its acts, for its failures to settle into permanence. The undoing of these last six years may not be possible; certainly it cannot happen soon. It is a comfort of sorts to think that the disposition to evil is limited to the Bush Administration and its followers in the legislature, but there is an itch in that idea. Bush and his minions in the Congress were reelected in 2004. Could there have been any cause for that but fear? And would the country have turned against him if the predictions of his court of fools had been correct and the invasion and occupation had been “a piece of cake”? The kinds of death that make us fearful now have no antecedents. No one had used a weapon of mass destruction before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and no one has used such a weapon since, but there are thousands of such weapons now, waiting. There had never been such a sudden and devastating attack on the U.S. mainland as the one on 9/11.

The first step in understanding how the country will think of this different death and what parts, if any, of the necessary reversal of the Bush years it will accomplish is the understanding that the actions of these last six years were not a proper response, that a disposition to evil is not a resolution of fear. To the three basic questions written by Immanuel Kant at the height of the Enlightenment—“What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?”—we must add another: Why am I so afraid?

It is a beginning.

is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His new book, The Politics of Heaven: America in Fearful Times (W. W. Norton), will be published in August.

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