Many, many years ago, I heard second hand a true story that still makes me smile. It was the story of an American walking down the Champs-Elysees in Paris. He was enjoying the day, going nowhere in particular.
After a few moments, he came upon a small knot of people clustered in a tight circle, and as he drew nearer, he heard the sound of a guitar. Even from a distance he could tell that most, perhaps all of the group were Americans -- from just-off-the-plane tourists to seasoned, long-term ex-pats. They were smiling as they clustered around a street musician, who was strumming away energetically. Many in the audience had tears streaming down their faces as he sang:
Come and listen to my story
'bout a man named Jed,
A poor mountaineer
Barely kept his family fed.
And then one day
He was shootin' at some food
When up from the ground
Come a-bubblin' crude.
Then, with all the passion of Bill Travis and Davy Crockett calling the Alamo defenders to the ramparts, this crowd of Americans hollered at the top of their lungs: 'OIL, THAT IS! BLACK GOLD! TEXAS TEA!'
Shocked, mystified and undoubtedly worried for their safety and those of their children, the Parisians continued walking by, no doubt giving them a wide berth and that expression we see so frequently from their waiters and maitre'Ds. To the Americans, they and the rest of their city no longer existed, and the unknown musician ' God bless him, whoever and wherever he may be ' grinned like a monkey and picked up the pace:
Just sit right back
And you'll hear a tale
A tale of a fateful trip'
That started from
This tropic port
Aboard this tiny ship.
The smiles, the group singing -- you can just take that for granted. But the tears, the weeping '- we can understand that too. The loneliness, the longing for the simple comfort we find in a kindred spirit, far from home. The instant camaraderie '- 'Pittsburgh? Go Steelers!' And there's something just so damn carefree and glorious about a bunch of oblivious Yankee tourists making complete idiots of themselves, surrounded by two thousand years of culture and art, banding together to sing about the Modern Stone-Age Fam-i-lee! and think about home'
You want to go where people know
People are all the same
You want to go where
Everybody knows your name.
In '98 I spent a terrific three months in Brisbane, Australia. OZ is home to the nicest, most fun-loving people who ever walked the earth. I went boogey-boarding in the Coral Sea, and walked on white beaches so fine and clean that the sand squeaked like new sneakers on polished hardwood with every step you took.
But the night I got up and sang a karaoke Danny Zuko to an adorable, blonde Australian Sandy and a mob of fifty drunken Aussies torturing 'Summer Nights' from Grease'well, to be perfectly honest, I was just so damn proud. That American accent really sold it. My money was no good in the joint after that.
For those of us paying attention, it looks like the world is getting to be not the same cozy place it was when I swam in the Coral Sea or The Unknown Musician put his hat down for a few francs. Something has happened. We all know what that something was, and there's nothing worthwhile I can add about that clear, blue, fall morning.
Something has happened to us as a people, too -' most of us, anyway. And the rest of the world looks at us the same way those Parisians did that harmless afternoon on the Champs Elysees: nervous and apprehensive and deeply concerned. We have already deeply shocked and surprised our enemies '- those that are still alive. But from those we thought friends, we have heard a growing stream of bitter invective and shrill hysteria that has risen in pitch above the range of human hearing and is now audible only to the neighborhood dogs. We are called unsophisticated, swaggering cowboys who have somehow stumbled upon vast power, and many of our erstwhile allies have taken to talking to us as you would a four year old holding a loaded gun.
Our critics watch us with an intensity most of us cannot believe or perhaps even imagine, and they are looking carefully, waiting to see what the American behemoth will do next.
At home and abroad, there have been renewed charges of American Imperialism, of cultural and economic hegemony, and of determined efforts on our part to subjugate and dominate the people of the world through our greed, our ignorance and our cruelty.
Once again, events not of our doing have thrust the United States into a position where military engagements on the far side of the world seem inevitable, and no less inevitable are the charges of American Imperialism. If we are to be worthy of the manifest blessings and freedoms we enjoy, we must take these charges very seriously, and be as ruthless in our self-examination as we are on the battlefield.
Unlike the miserable, poorly trained, ill-fed and disgracefully led legions of conscripts we will face on that battlefield, our soldiers are citizen volunteers, and such free people need, and deserve, a cause worthy of their hardships and sacrifice.
And there is no disputing the fact that it is WE who are going over THERE. To the degree that there are civilian casualties (and there will be), it will be their civilians, not ours, that are dying. There are justifications for such a course of action, justifications that tower above the base and criminal plunder of territory and resources. So if we are about to go and inflict such violence, we had better be damn sure we check our motives before we go.
Accusations of 'Imperialism' are flung at us so frequently, and met with so little defense, that it is actually shocking to see how easily such a simplisme charge can be overturned.
To be Imperial is to possess, or hope to possess, an empire, and these slanders have been made for about a century now. The Cambridge International Dictionary of English defines 'empire' as 'a group of countries ruled by a single person, government or country.' Oxford paperback dictionary calls it 'a large group of states under single authority.' Cambridge goes on to define 'imperialism' as 'a system in which a country rules other countries, sometimes having used force to obtain power over them.'
ANY rational person can see that the United States does not meet these qualifications by any stretch of the imagination. What nations do we rule? Whose legislative bodies can we overturn with a wave of the hand? Where on this planet do people live under an American flag who do not wish to? And as Jonah Goldberg correctly points out, where are our governors and our tax collectors so that we can siphon off the meager wages of our Imperial Slaves? What kind of empire does not have these imperial mechanisms?
At the end of World War II, America stood astride the world as the unchallenged military and economic power. The terrible might of Germany and Japan lay crushed in smoldering ruin. Great Britain, bled white by the near-total loss of two successive generations of their best and brightest, was in barely better shape. China was a collection of pre-industrial peasants fighting a bitter civil war, and nowhere in the rest of Asia, Africa or South America did there exist anything more than local defense militias.
Only the Soviets remained as a potent military force -' and that force was essentially tactical, not strategic, in nature. While strong in tanks, artillery and men, it had no navy to speak of, and an air force consisting mostly of close support ground-attack aircraft such as the Il-2 Sturmovik. While effective against ground targets, the Soviets in 1945 had nothing resembling US heavy bombers such as the B-17, the B-24, or the magnificent B-29.
On the other hand, the United States not only had what was far and away the world's preeminent Navy; we also had large numbers of long-range strategic bombers and swarms of highly-seasoned fighter escorts. We had a Marine Corps flush with victories: battle-hardened men who had invented through blood and horror the means to go ashore on enemy beaches and stay there. We had an Army whose courage and skill in battle was unsurpassed, and whose critical supply and ordinance staffs were, by far, the best in the world.
And, of course, we had the atomic bomb, and the will to use it.
History has never, and will never, record a time when such unchallenged power existed in the hands of a nation, nor of a time when opposing forces were so weak and in such a state of disarray and abject surrender.
And these feared and ruthless Americans, a people who had incinerated cities in Europe and Japan and whose ferocity and tenacity on island jungles and French beaches had brought fanatical warrior cultures to their knees -' what did these new conquerors of the world do?
They went home is what they did. They did pause for a few years to rebuild the nations sworn to their destruction and the murder of their people. They carbon-copied their own system of government and enforced it on their most bitterly hated enemy, a people who have since given so much back to the world as a result of this generosity. They left troops in and sent huge sums of money to Europe to rebuild what they all knew would eventually become trading partners, but also determined competitors. Then they sent huge steel blades through their hard-earned fleets of ships and airplanes and came home to get on with their lives in peace and quiet.
Oh, and some of the islands they had visited had asked to remain under the American flag as territories and protectorates, free to leave whenever they chose.
We are still too close to our actions in those critical years to fully grasp the meaning of what we did. Distant history will show it to be the most magnanimous act in human history, a test of national character passed with such glory and distinction that it baffles and amazes both our friends and enemies to this day.
Of course, many of our critics will claim that those were the actions of a better, simpler America, a place long gone and nothing like the cruel monstrosity we have become today. But isn't it odd that those who call us Imperialists are the first to point out our overwhelming strength ' a relative strength that is starting to approach once again that which we held in 1946? Surely, with the political, economic and military power we command today, we could safely assume the mantle of Imperialism -- 'a system in which a country rules other countries, sometimes having used force to obtain power over them.' -- pretty much at will. And yet we do not.
Once again we see the posters calling for NO BLOOD FOR OIL. Putting aside whether or not oil is indeed worth fighting for, let us look at a past so recent as to be indicative of the people we are today.
In 1991, NO BLOOD FOR OIL had an actual point to make, for during the Gulf War we were indeed fighting to keep oil supplies out of the hands of a madman who would, perhaps ' and eventually did ' try to hold the world hostage to his ambitions by trying to control or destroy this vital resource.
After handing him the worst defeat in modern history, and once again with vast numbers of battle-hardened and victorious troops in place, the United States could have simply claimed the Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil fields as spoils of war. It was clearly the Imperialist thing to do.
Furthermore, it was a fait accompli ' already done. There was no further risk to us. The Republican Guard was running as fast as their stolen Mercedes-Benz's would carry them. We had achieved such a total and spectacular victory that our pilots ' men called baby-killers, sadists, murderers and worse ' refused to drop their weapons on legitimate military targets because the victory was so one-sided that they in their decency could no longer continue to do what they were ordered to do.
And so what did these American Imperialists do with the spoils of such victory, with the precious, precious oilfields completely and totally ours? We sent our best people over there to put out the fires. And then we came home. Again.
How many times will we have to do this before our critics are able to discern a pattern? How many provocations and taunts and slander will we have to endure before anti-Americans wake up to the simple truth that brings us home time and time again, which is simply this: For the first time in history, a nation powerful enough to rule the world has simply refused to do so. It is a moral and ethical choice we make as a people. More than that; it is data. It is evidence.
People who ascribe to us the most base motives imaginable, using ancient rhetoric from 80 years of Marxist failure have, as usual, had to confront the fact that everything they believe in is demonstrably and spectacularly wrong. Despite their shrieking words and foaming mouths, the history of our actions makes liars of them all. It is a truth so simple, written so large and so clearly, that even the most liberal among us can understand it.
Don't let them use that word, 'imperialism,' unchallenged again.
There is no American Empire. There is, however, the possibility of American Hegemony. Back to the dictionaries:
Oxford Online is shockingly direct: 'Hegemony: noun. Leadership.' Clearly, by Oxford's definition, we are an Hegemony.
But it gets more complicated. Merriam-Webster defines it as 'preponderant influence or authority over others,' while Cambridge weighs in with 'the position of being the strongest and most powerful and therefore controlling others.'
'Preponderant influence' and 'the strongest and most powerful' are hard to disagree with. Those seem indisputable facts as applied to the United States, whether it be in the area of culture, politics, science and engineering, or our military prowess. Where the term comes into question lies in whether or not we use 'authority over others' and are 'therefore controlling others.'
We are widely criticized among Europeans for what they call our cultural and economic hegemony. They decry our pop culture as vulgar and commercial, and in fact, it often is. McDonald's are now everywhere on the European continent, and we are reminded what horrible, fattening food it is. Agreed.
What doesn't seem to get through their anti-populist, anti-American blinders is that basic economic principle of supply and demand. I suppose we shouldn't be too shocked to hear this. The birthplace, intellectual home and last bastion of Marxism has always had a tough time with economic reality.
They also have a tough time with democracy, and the idea of people ' you know, the masses ' making their own decisions. And the thing that breaks the heart of every European elitist is the inescapable fact that McDonald's and Cheers are huge in Europe, because their own people can't get enough of them.
I have never been to France myself, but I would presume that daily life there does not consist of squads of heavily armed US Marines rounding up the terrified population, herding them into McDonald's at gunpoint, and shaking their last euros out of them. When France passes laws saying that some minimal percentage of their television programming must be produced in France, then that is an admission ' and it must be, if you will pardon the pun, a galling one ' that huge numbers of their people prefer our culture over their own.
Fact is, dreadful or not, McDonald's is not subsidized by the US Department of World Hegemony. They are a business concern. The day European customers stop eating at McDonald's, the McDonald's will go away.
But they do not. They are growing like mushrooms. American television programming has to be legally constrained. I suspect that Spider-Man out-drew more Europeans in a weekend than all of the films of Truffaut's did in the United States over forty years. This is telling them something, and what it is telling them is that our culture has a greater hold over the imaginations of their own people than theirs does.
To the Average French Citizen, I imagine Spider-Man, Cheers and McDonald's represent more or less what they do to Americans: a fun couple of hours, a few laughs, and something quick to scarf down when you're in a hurry. Big deal.
But to the deep-thinking elites of Europe, these trends are catastrophic, and terrifying. For it shows them, yet again, that a mob of boorish, unsophisticated, common brutes ' that'd be us ' is able to produce art and music and culture that cleans the clock of any nation that lets it in the door.
Spider-Man and McDonalds, and the long lines of their own countrymen waiting eagerly for a taste of them, prove to them daily that the European cultural superiority that they so deeply believe in is'how do we say this delicately?'uh, wrong.
And of course, being unwilling to face these unpleasant logical inferences, the blame has to be put somewhere. And who better to blame than a blinded, staggering, idiotic Cyclops, smashing all the delicate china in its drunken, obnoxious rampage?
So, are we being an hegemony? Are we using some 'authority over others' to force our cultural and political will on unsuspecting, defenseless people? Or do those people, from their own free will, choose to enjoy American movies and food and music and television because it has somehow managed to tap into the human spirit, into a sense of playfulness and freedom and above all, optimism --- things that all people crave, and that their own dark, brooding, pessimistic outlets have failed to deliver? Are these common Europeans being brainwashed by the orbiting Yankee Mind-Control Ray, or is the idea of a place where everybody knows your name or a beat-up teenage kid who can fly through canyons of skyscrapers on gossamer webs something that just about everyone wants to be a part of?
I studied film in college. I sat through Jules et Jim, The Bicycle Thief, 1900, Satyricon and The Grand Illusion. Watching them was work. I enjoyed just about all of these and many other mov -- sorry, films -- and I am a better person for having seen them, but some of them ' like a recent Polish entry in the Academy Awards, 'Life as a Fatal, Sexually Transmitted Disease,' well, that approached prolonged oral surgery in terms of its enjoyment value.
You don't have to have the vast intellectual reserves of a French Minister of Culture to understand why our movies and music have such appeal abroad. They are, more often than not, each small ambassadors of freedom and optimism. From James Dean to Brad Pitt, Americans are cool; cool because they don't spend their evening sitting around bumming cigarettes and discussing global warming. They have bad guys to fight and motorcycles to ride, vast stretches of open road to get lost in and a disdain for any authority whatsoever. Where the European hero is a deeply conflicted soul lost in an existentialist nightmare, the American counterpart is a member of a rag-tag group of Rebels flying out to destroy the Death Star. Or a no-nonsense cop who plays by his own rules. Or an ordinary person, who, as the result of chance (Spider-Man), determination (Batman) or accident of birth (Superman), uses amazing personal power to aid the weak and fight evil.
These are our myths. They lack the patina of history that elevates those of the Greeks and Norse and countless other mythologies. But they are not created in a vacuum. These stories come from our common heritage and our common beliefs. Our heroes are what we make them, and for this country, the most successful have been young men and women thrust into extraordinary circumstances, who fight evils and monsters and never, ever use their powers for personal gain.
Yes, these are fantasies. No, of course real Americans are not so altruistic. But these are the standards we create for ourselves, and these American heroes represent what we represent as a nation. Action over endless discussion and moral paralysis. Rebellion against authority. Defense of the weak and helpless. And most of all, the optimism of the happy ending.
We get a lot of criticism from our betters about how shallow and mindless the Hollywood ending is. Fair enough. It does turn its back on the untidiness of reality. But it is also an expression of how we would have things turn out in a perfect world, a world where freedom and justice triumph and reign. These are the things we believe in, and these are, not surprisingly, immensely attractive to the rest of the world.
Much of that world is now going through a state of cognitive dissonance regarding America and her people. In some places, this split-personality disorder is so intense as to cause us real concern.
Talk to the vaunted 'Arab Street' about America. Watch as their eyes glaze over with hatred and loathing and a desire to see us wiped off the face of the earth as criminals and murderers. Then something amazing happens. Time and time again, after expressing their view that there is no higher calling for their sons and daughters than to kill as many Americans as possible, watch what happens when asked if they want to visit the US.
On a table, place a $100 dollar bill, keys to a nearby Mercedes, a steak and lobster dinner and a US green card, and see which one disappears first.
These people, common people who spend their entire day sipping coffee and planning our violent demise, want nothing more than to go to Disney World (presumably they will blow themselves to pieces after they get through the lines at Pirates of the Caribbean.) They want to live in nice houses and drive nice cars, just as we do. They want to live in affluence and security ' like the Americans. They want everything we have, and admit it cheerfully. And then, some of them revert to planning how to blow up, shoot, poison or infect every last one of us.
How do they sleep with this contradiction? I personally find Islamic fundamentalists revolting, violent, ignorant and cruel. I have no desire whatsoever to visit Cairo or Damascus or Amman. To the extent that they want this fight I am ready to give it to them, with no schizophrenic mental contortions.
Mohammad Atta spent some of his last days in Las Vegas. That must have put the zap on the head of that murdering, smug bastard. He could have despised it from a distance and kept his Muslim soul pure for the butchery ahead. But he and his colleagues did not. They drank alcohol and cavorted with strippers. They could not resist the temptations. Even they, the most committed haters of what we are, could not stay away from what we have to offer.
To be honest, I think the very presence of America drives these Jihadists insane.
Promised world domination from their God and their holy Koran, they see around them nothing but failure and frustration and humiliation; while on the far side of the world lies a nation which, in their minds, has no culture and no history, and is populated by 300 million people bound and determined to break every one of their prohibitions on sexuality, drinking, gambling, and trade. As Steven Den Beste has pointed out brilliantly and often at www.denbeste.nu, not only our evident success, but our very existence calls to lie everything they believe in.
Again, paraphrasing my friend Steven, they look out from under a repressive, brutal government and a religion that demands obedience, conformity and denial of all natural desires... and see in us a society so free and comfortable with ourselves that we had the nerve, the audacity to include "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" as inalienable rights!
I have no trouble understanding why such fanatical elements of Islam want to see us destroyed. What I do find hard to understand is how so many of them love us with the look of little children promised a trip to The Magic Kingdom. For many, many people on 'The Arab Street' the very idea of coming to the US fills them with visible glee. I don't think I will ever understand how they can turn this inner argument down enough to be able to sleep at night.
In one sense perhaps, we are, in fact, an Empire. We are an empire of the mind, a place whose dreams and ideals have colonized the world. We are a black hole of desire upon which billions place their unfocused hopes. And yet, to them it seems as if we turn them away. We dangle freedom and hope and comfort in front of them with a glimpse into our everyday lives though television and movies. They want what we have, desperately. And they hate us for not giving it to them.
Well, sooner or later they are going to have to grow up a little and face some unpleasant truths. These people want the fruits of our success; they want our freedoms and our wealth and our confidence. But they are not willing to do the work. They are not willing to pay for it.
They wonder why we do not come and set them free from their own governments, why we don't send our sons and daughters around the world to get killed in order to break their self-imposed shackles. They wonder why we don't let all of them into the Magic Kingdom. They do not see, because they do not wish to see, that these freedoms and ideals cannot be dispensed like Hershey bars from a passing Jeep.
No one gave us our freedom ' we earned it. We fought and died for it. We have paid a terrible price in blood and treasure to keep that freedom. We fight and die to this day to preserve it. Right now, at this instant, American kids have chosen to be sitting in foxholes or cooped up in the bowels of ships, trading the liberty of their youth for poor pay and drab conditions to allow us to keep these freedoms. We will again ask some of these people to die for us, and some of them will.
To those poor suffering billions out there who want what we have, our refusal to hand our success to them on a platter makes us cold and inhuman and uncaring. But freedom is not a gift, it is an idea which only becomes a right when it has been paid for, and to that extent our edifice of prosperity and success is built on a deep and strong foundation that they simply do not have.
These foundations are well known to all who care to pay attention. Freedom of speech, no matter how reprehensible or challenging. Respect for law. Racial, sexual and religious equality. Respect for work and education. Tolerance. We have been hammering on these principles daily for almost two and a half centuries, and we still have a long way to go.
These and a thousand million small webs of trust and interdependency simply do not exist in the countries we find ourselves at odds with, nor do they seem in any hurry to develop them. The millions who stare wide-eyed at all we have accomplished refuse to do the dirty, unglamorous work that makes it all possible.
The founding legal document that we revere with the same passion that they do their religion is not a secret known only to a robed cabal. It is available for study in millions of places, quoted daily and debated in thousands of publications. It is the key to our success, prosperity, and outlook.
But adopting it is not easy. It means abandoning the easy satisfaction of blaming others for one's own failures. It means forgoing fatwahs and murdering people who express opinions you find abhorrent. It means enduring the stress and strain of finding a way to make compromise with people you dislike. It means treating women and homosexuals and Jews and much more that they hate with respect and dignity. More than any of these lofty and essential habits, it means nothing more or less than getting out of bed each morning, slugging through traffic and putting in an honest day's work --- five days a week, fifty weeks a year.
But they don't want that. They just want the Gold Card, and they want someone else to make the payments.
There are a few writers out there who have been responsible for teaching me not what to think, but how to think. Carl Sagan was one of the first; Victor Davis Hanson and Steven Den Beste are two of the most recent. But of them all, the one who has been the most fun has been P.J. O'Rourke. He toured the world pondering why some places work, and some don't. His book, Eat the Rich, is just simply brilliant ' brilliant in how it shows success not to be the product of geography or the accident of national resources, but rather the culture and attitude of the people and the way they view themselves.
PJ ends this really excellent and very funny work by pointing out that while nine of the ten commandments deal with such primal, elemental rules as 'Thou shalt not kill' and 'Thou shalt not steal,' God and Moses added at the end one that is somewhat startling in concept, namely: 'Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house; nor his wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's.' 'In other words,' writes PJ, 'go get one of your own.'
I believe this Republic will weather the threats we face today in the same way we have for 250 years. I believe we are already a stronger, better place than we were on September 10th, 2001, for we have once again had to take stock of who we are and what we believe in.
And I believe that the power of our American Dream will, in fact, eventually cast off the ignorance and fear that have held so many in bondage for so long, because it is ultimately a fight you are free to join or walk away from. It represents a choice to join a ragtag group of Rebels fighting a desperate battle against tyranny and oppression ' and who would want to walk out on a movie like that?
When I was a little kid, I asked my dad about an image I had seen of really huge numbers of prisoners being marched to their execution in a forest clearing, guarded by perhaps five or ten men with rifles. I wanted to know why they didn't just rush the guards. I mean, it's one thing if they were heading to another miserable day at work camp, but these people were being led off to be killed, and they knew it. I mean, for God's sake, what did they have to lose?
I was six. My dad looked at me. He had served in the latter days of WW2 in Europe as a U.S. Army intelligence officer. No parachuting onto the decks of enemy U-Boats at night to steal Enigma machines -- just unexceptional, unheroic, 2nd Lieutenant grunt work. He'd been to the camps though, seen some horrible things. When I asked him why they didn't fight back or run for the woods, he said, without any arrogance or contempt or jingoism, "I don't know Billy, I can't figure that one out myself." Then there was a long moment. "But I can't imagine Americans just walking off like that, either."
Now when he said he couldn't imagine Americans marching off to their deaths, he meant, obviously, Americans like the ones he knew. Kids who grew up hunting, kids who got a BB gun for their fifth birthday -- tough, adventurous, American kids whose mom's never gave a second thought to them shooting their eye out with a Red Ryder air rifle.
Now before we go any further, I want to be crystal clear about something: I don’t believe for an instant in any genetic nonsense about slave races or nations of pure-bred heroes. That’s a deadly trap, and the end result of such thinking is a place on the watchtower machine-gunning starving prisoners. But humans are the most successful species this planet has seen, not for being ferocious or fast or strong or even intelligent, but for their malleability. Humans can, and do, adapt to anything. It is their culture that determines what is in their hearts.
Consider the case of Jews in Germany, during the 1930s. Here was a people who had been so tormented and persecuted and psychologically beaten down that they had come to believe the outrageous slander that they were guests in their own country. Behind their shuttered doors at night, they created cocoons of astonishing culture and beauty, a symphony of violins and cellos and poetry and literature. They were far over-represented in occupations we rightly esteem as among the most noble of our species: surgeons, musicians, teachers and scientists.
By any measure of human decency, these were the people that should have been helping to lead a ravaged Germany back to respect and prosperity. Yet they were massacred in their millions by brutes and sadists who sent millions to their deaths while listening to symphonies.
If it is possible to write a clearer lesson on human nature, then I cannot imagine it, nor can I imagine the amount of blood it will take to convince people unwilling to look reality in the face; that reality being that compassion, culture, law and philosophy are precious, rare and acquired habits that must be defended with force against people who understand nothing but force. The great failure and staggering tragedy of European Jews is that they could not accept that some of their neighbors were not as decent, humane and educated as they were. A culture that learned to survive by turning inward simply never was willing to face the reality of what they were up against; namely, that hoping for compassion and humanity from the likes of the Nazis was akin to reading poetry to a hurricane. This denial -- and that is the only word for it -- is, in the final horrible analysis, a form of arrogance, almost: the refusal to see things for what they are. A people of astonishing internal beauty simply could not look into the face of such ugliness without turning away. And now they are dead.
And there are many intelligent, enlightened, gentle and good-hearted people today who believe exactly the same thing. If we let this moral blindness continue to gain ground, then they will get us all killed, too. And then who will put their boot on humanity’s neck for the next thousand years?
I recently visited a website that featured a picture of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, with the caption: My hero! Someone who thinks his way out of trouble! The implication, of course, is that force and violence are universally to be rejected and despised as unworthy of thinking people (or Vulcans).
Well bucko, Spock carried a phaser as well as a tricorder, and he used it when he had to. If the Star Trek future represents a hope for our species at its most reasonable and open-minded best, it would be well to remember that the Enterprise carried a hell of a lot of photon torpedoes because the cause of human decency cannot be advanced if all the decent humans lie dead.
To the many who scorn the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution as the dangerous plaything of illiterate, mindless oafs who enjoy loud noises, let me simply refer you to that great unbiased and incorruptible teacher: History.
Ask yourselves why intellectual elites so love totalitarian states where people are unarmed and dependent sheep. Look at the examples of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, and Saddam, and the horrors they have inflicted at will on their own people. And when contemplating your ever-so-sophisticated foreign policy, ask yourselves what compassionate and non-violent options you are left with when facing a determined, heartless bastard like Hitler, Napoleon, Ghengis Khan or Attila.
Some say that the time for real evil like that has finally gone. I hope you are right, I really do. I don't want to go fight those bastards; I'd rather barbeque and watch the Gators. I'm sure the Jews in 1930 Germany thought such things could never happen again, not in the heart of European culture and civilization. I'm sure every bound and beaten musician, surgeon, philosopher and painter being lined up at the side of a ditch thought exactly that.
Freedom is preserved by free people. Our 40th President wrote that “no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.”
I believe gun ownership is the truest form of freedom, and here's why: It says you are your own person, responsible for your own actions. You are, in other words, expected to behave as an adult. It says, furthermore, that you should not be collectively punished for the misdeeds of others. In fact, those that abuse this freedom by committing crimes are thought of and dealt with much more harshly by gun owners, as a rule, than Hollywood celebrities, precisely because a free person understands the responsibility that comes with freedom.
This, to my mind, is the fundamental difference between the Europeans and the U.S.: We trust the people. We fought wars and lost untold husbands and brothers and sons because of this single most basic belief: Trust the people. Trust them with freedom. Trust them to spend their own money. Trust them to do the right thing. Trust them to defend themselves. To the degree that government can help, great -- but TRUST THE PEOPLE.
We as a nation suffer an appalling number of handgun-related deaths each year -- perhaps 11,000 of them. The number is not important; each is a personal tragedy and those lives can never be replaced.
If we attempt to reduce this horrible number by banning handguns, we are taking away the property of a person who has broken no laws, by a government whose legitimacy is determined by a document that specifically allows that property, namely guns.
Destroy that trust by punishing the innocent, by pulling a plank from the Bill of Rights, and the contract between the government and the people falls apart. Once the Second Amendment goes, the First will soon follow, because if some unelected elite determines that the people can't be trusted with dangerous guns, then it's just a matter of time until they decide they can't be trusted with dangerous ideas, either. Dangerous ideas have killed many millions more people than dangerous handguns -- listen to the voices from the Gulag, the death camps, and all the blood-soaked killing fields through history.
The Framers, in their wisdom, put the 2nd Amendment there to give teeth to the revolutionary, unheard-of idea that the power rests with We The People. They did not depend on good will or promises. They made sure that when push came to shove, we'd be the ones doing the pushing and shoving, not the folks in Washington. And by the way, gun rights supporters are frequently mocked when they say it deters foreign invasion -- after all, come on, grow up, be realistic: Who's nuts enough to invade America? Exactly. It's unthinkable. Good. 2nd Amendment Mission 1 accomplished.
But back to the undeniable domestic cost: when confronted with the idea of banning handguns to reduce this horrible toll, many handgun defenders are tempted to point to the numbers killed on the highways each year -- perhaps four times that number -- and ask why we don’t ban cars as well.
The logical response is that bans on travel -- cars, airplanes, etc. -- are a false analogy compared to banning guns, because cars have a clear benefit while guns don't do anything other than kill what they are aimed at.
While that is exactly true, I think it misses the point, which to me is simply this: we'd never ban automobile travel to avoid thousands of highway deaths. It's clearly not worth it in both economic and personal freedom terms. We choose, reluctantly, and with many a lost loved one in mind, to keep on driving.
Here is my dry-eyed, cold-hearted, sad conclusion: I believe that the freedom, convenience and economic viability provided by the automobile is worth the 40,000 lives we lose to automotive deaths each year -- a number made more horrible by the fact that perhaps 40% are related to drunk driving and are therefore preventable.
By the same calculation, I accept that the freedoms entrusted to the people of the United States are worth the 11,000 lives we lose to gun violence each year.
I wish I could make both those numbers go away. I will support any reasonable campaign to make them as low as possible.
But understand this: 11,000 handgun deaths a year, over four years is very roughly 50,000 killed. In Nazi Germany, an unarmed population was unable to resist the abduction and murder of 6,000,000 people in a similar period: a number 120 times higher. Throw in the midnight murders of the Soviets, the Chinese, the various and sundry African and South American genocides and purges and political assassinations and that number grows to many hundreds, if not several thousand times more killings in unarmed populations.
Visualize this to fully appreciate the point. Imagine the Superbowl. Every player on the field is a handgun victim. All the people in the stands are the victims who were unable to resist with handguns. Those are historical facts.
I, myself, am willing to pay that price as a society -– knowing full well that I or a loved one may be part of that terrible invoice. I wish it was lower. Obviously, I wish it didn’t exist at all. But any rational look into the world shows us places where the numbers of innocents murdered by their own governments in unarmed nations are far, far higher.
Of course, many societies have far lower numbers. Japan is a fine example. I'm sure if the United States had 2000 years of a culture whose prize assets were conformity and submission, then our numbers would be a lot lower. Alas, we are not that society. Thank God, we are not that society.
It is abundantly clear that the rate of handgun murders in the United States is not uniform. Very large murder rates can be observed in small, exceedingly violent populations of every race in this country, and these rates seem to be more related to issues of income, education and living conditions. Certainly guns are freely available in areas where our murder rates are appallingly high. They are also found in very large numbers in communities where handgun crime is virtually nonexistent.
Doesn’t that tell us that there is something deeper at work here? Could it be, perhaps, that the problem is not with the number of guns in this country but rather in the hearts of those who we allow to wield them, repeatedly? Could it really be as simple as apprehending, and punishing, those that would do harm to innocents and to civilization? Rather than banning guns, should we not attack the moral rot that infests these small, violent populations of every color who put such horrible numbers at our feet?
Assume for a moment you could vaporize every gun on the planet. Would crime go away? Or would ruthless, physically strong gangs of young men be essentially able to roam free and predate at will?
The history of civilization shows time and time again how decent, sophisticated city dwellers amass wealth through cooperation and the division of labor -- only to be victimized by ruthless gangs of raping, looting cutthroats who couldn't make a fruit basket, sweeping down on them, murdering them and carting away the loot, to return a few years later, forever, ad infinitum. Vikings, Mongols, desperadoes of every stripe -- they are a cancer on humanity, but there they are and there they have always been.
If civilization is worth having -- and it is -- then it has to be defended, because the restraining virtues of justice, compassion and respect for laws are products of that civilizing force and completely unknown to those who would do it harm.
Therefore, since I believe in this civilization, in its laws, science, art and medicine, I believe we must be prepared to defend it against what I feel no embarrassment for calling the Forces of Darkness. Those forces could be raiders on horseback, jackbooted Nazi murderers, ecstatic human bombs, or some kid blowing away a shopkeeper.
For the gun-ban argument to be convincing, you'd have to show me a time before shopkeepers were blown away, hacked away, pelted away or whatever the case may be. You would have to show me a time in history before the invention of the firearm, when crime and raiding and looting did not exist, when murders and rapes did not exist. We may lose 11,000 people to handguns a year. How many would we lose without any handguns, if murderers and rapists roamed free of fear, ignoring reprisal from citizens or police? I don't know. You don't know either. Maybe it's a lot fewer people, and maybe, in a world where strength and ruthlessness trump all, it would be a far higher one.
You may argue that only the police should be allowed to carry guns. Consider this carefully. Do we really want to create an unelected subculture that views itself as so elite and virtuous as to be the only ones worthy of such power, trust and authority? Have we not clearly seen the type of people drawn to such exclusive positions of authority, and the attitudes and arrogance it promotes?
Furthermore, I can't see any moral distinction between a policeman and a law-abiding citizen. Policemen are drawn from the ranks of law-abiding citizens. They are not bred in hydroponics tanks. They are expected to show restraint and use their weapon as a last resort. Millions upon millions of citizens, a crowd more vast than entire armies of police, do exactly this every day.
If all of these horrors had sprung up as a result of the invention of the handgun I'd be right there beside those calling for their destruction.
But clearly, this is not the case. In our cowboy past we used to say that "God created Man, but Sam Colt made them equal." This is simple enough to understand. It means that a villager, let's say a schoolteacher, can defeat a human predator who may have spent his entire life practicing the art of war. Firearms are what tipped the balance toward civilization by eliminating a lifetime spent studying swordplay or spear play or pointed-stick play. The bad guys have always used weapons and they always will. The simple truth about guns is that they are damn effective and even easier to operate. They level the playing field to the point where a woman has a chance against a gang of thugs or a police officer can control a brawl.
I don't see how vaporizing all the guns in the world would remove crime or violence -- history shows these have always been with us and show no signs of responding favorably to well-reasoned arguments or harsh language. I wish it were not true. I wish the IRS did not exist either, but there it is.
Criminals, and criminal regimes ranging from The Brow-Ridged Hairy People That Live Among the Distant Mountains all the way through history to the Nazis and the Soviets, have and will conspire to take by force what they cannot produce on their own. These people must be stopped. The genius of the 2nd Amendment is that it realizes that these people could be anybody -- including the U.S. Army. That is why this power, like the other powers, is vested in the people. Nowhere else in the world is this the case. You can make a solid argument that the United States is, by almost any measure, the most prosperous, successful nation in history. I'm not claiming this is because every American sleeps with a gun under the pillow -- the vast majority do not. I do claim it is the result of a document that puts faith and trust in the people -- trusts them with government, with freedom, and with the means of self-defense. You cannot remove that lynchpin of trust without collapsing the entire structure. Many observers of America never fully understand what we believe in our bones, namely, that the government doesn't tell us what we can do -- WE tell THOSE bastards just how far they can go.
Of course, all of this is completely whimsical, because, like nuclear weapons, guns are HERE and they are not going to go away. You cannot just vaporize them. Honest people might be compelled to turn in their weapons; criminals clearly will not. So what do you propose? Forget the moral high ground of gun ownership. Again a simple truth, often maligned but demonstrably dead-on accurate: When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.
The American Revolution surely is unique in the sense that its ringleaders -- Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, etc -- were men of property, wealth and prestige; in other words, men with something to lose. Compare this to any other revolution in history, where the ringleaders were outsiders; plotters staring in through the windows of prosperity, powerless. The Russian Revolution, French Revolution, etc -- these were joined by desperate people fighting mind-numbing poverty and severe political repression.
And yet the Founding Fathers were men who were as well-off as any men on earth at the time, and furthermore, any of them could have been (and were) political leaders under His Majesty's government. The average colonial farmer likewise led a life far more comfortable than those of his cousins in Europe, to say nothing of Asia or Africa.
For all practical intents and purposes, these people had absolutely nothing to gain, and everything in the world to lose, by taking on the greatest military force the world had ever known. Why would they do this? What possible motivation could well-off, comfortable people have? Militarily, they seemed certain to lose, and they knew before they started -- and Patrick Henry made that abundantly clear -- that they would be hanged as common criminals if they failed.
Of course, the answer is, they did it to be free. And they did it to make the rest of their nation -- the poor, the disenfranchised -- free as well. And it is clear as crystal from their collective writings that they took that risk to make Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore and the rest of us in their unseen posterity free, too. They could look down the dim, moonlit riverbanks of the future and see a society worthy of their sacrifice and determination. They knew that God, (or for me, chance perhaps) had put them together in a time and place where bold, courageous action, followed by much suffering, doubt, blood and fear could, perhaps, unleash in mankind an energy source the likes of which they could not imagine.
So for me, a child of that bet -- that guess, that commitment, that roll of the dice -- for me, I owe them the defense of that freedom, and I will do my poor mite to pass it on as best I can. These men pledged to each other their Lives, their Fortunes and their sacred Honor. They pledged that to me. I owe them. I do not have the right to take away someone else's freedom and property -- it is offensive to me to even contemplate it. Of course, if someone breaks the freedom/responsibility covenant by committing a crime, then all bets are off. To that extent, I view handgun murderers not just as criminals, but as traitors as well.
I hate seeing our kids get shot on the street, I hate it, I hate it. But that is the cost of freedom. People get horribly killed on Spring Break road trips to Florida at age 18. They're driving drunk. We could prevent them from going. We would save lives. Enron and MCI steal like the worst characters from Dickens, taking people's Christmas dinners so they can have gold plated faucets. We could regulate more, make things harder for the millions of honest businesses that build and trade honorably each day. The day may come when someone flies a Cessna into a stadium. We can ban the airplanes. Ditto for pleasure boats. We can ban and confiscate and regulate to our hearts content, and we will undoubtedly save many, many innocent lives by doing so. All for the price of a little freedom.
I believe we should punish the perpetrators. I will not agree to restrict the freedoms of the vast numbers of people who abide by the concomitant responsibility and live lives of honesty and decency.
And there is more than the physical restriction of freedoms: There is the slow erosion of self-reliance, self-confidence and self-determination among a nation. The more your government restricts your options, the more you psychologically look to government to keep you safe, fed, clothed, housed and sustained.
There is a word for people who are fed, clothed, housed and sustained fully by others, and that word is SLAVES.
If Congress were occupied by angels and Michael sat in a throne of glory in the Oval Office, I would listen to what they said for my own greater good. But I have noticed that no government is made of angels, and that many seem to be exclusively staffed by members of the opposite persuasion. So who determines how much freedom we trade for how much security? People do. People are not unknown to place their own interests above those of others. There is even a vanishing remote chance that Jean Cretien has at some point perhaps put personal interest above those of his constituents.
The real genius of the Founding Fathers was that these great and good men had the foresight and the courage to look into their own darker motives, and construct a system that prevents the accumulation of power.
The Constitution they created could only be torn up by force of arms. And that is why the Founders left that power in the hands of the people, who together can never be cowed by relatively small numbers of thugs holding the only guns.
As PJ O'Rourke points out, the U.S. Constitution is less than a quarter the length of the owner's manual for a 1998 Toyota Camry, and yet it has managed to keep 300 million of the world's most unruly, passionate and energetic people safe, prosperous and free. Smarter people than me may disagree with that document -- I'm for not touching a comma.
So as a proud son of those brave men, I'll take freedom -- all of it -- and because I accept the benefits of those freedoms, I'll solemnly take the responsibilities as well. I may someday lose a child on a trip to Spring Break, but I'll never lock them in the basement to keep them safe. And I'll accept the fact that living in Los Angeles puts me at risk for being shot to death because I feel the freedom is worth it. I breathe that freedom every day, and hey, we all gotta go sometime. I'll continue to fly experimental airplanes because I am careful, meticulous, precise and responsible, and yet the day may come when I am out of altitude, out of airspeed, and out of ideas all at the same time. Oh well. I have seen and done things up there that you cannot imagine and I cannot describe. Freedom.
Our failures and disgraces cruelly remind us that we, like every other government, are composed of fallible men and women with no divine ability to read the future or foresee all outcomes. But these failures are failures of action, action borne of confidence and a belief in our way of life, and come all the more painful for their contrast to the everyday standards to which we hold ourselves as a people and a nation. For it is an undeniable fact that no great nation in history has held a shadow of our measure of power, and yet exercised it with such restraint, nor does any time in the bloody history of warfare reflect a people so magnanimous in victory against enemies sworn to their murder and destruction. From our first hour, we have been, and remain, the beacon of hope and freedom for a world desperate and longing for such an example, and we can measure our success in building such a place by the numbers of those who are literally dying in an attempt to come and be part of it.
Our ancestors made their choice and here we are. I respect anyone’s right to choose differently. I only speak up to defend the choice we Americans made as a deeply spiritual one, borne of reflection and danger and a spectacular triumph against all odds. I cannot stand idly by to hear people denounce our freedoms as the dimwitted macho posturing of a mob of illiterate uncultured idiots who are so vulgar and uncouth as to still believe in Hollywood myths manufactured for our simple, complacent, unsophisticated nature.
From the Revolution until today, the choice for full freedom with all its accompanying excesses and failures is a profoundly well-reasoned, moral and ethical choice, and the result has been national and personal success unparalleled in the history of this world.
I am deeply proud to be a member of such a magnificent group of people. I hope to God I can give back as much as I owe.
On October 7th, 2002, I returned to Los Angeles from Arlington National Cemetery where we'd interred my father, 2nd Lt. William Joseph Whittle, who died from what may have been sheer joy during a fishing trip in Canada.
My dad served in the US Army in Germany, from 1944 through 1946. He was an intelligence officer, and was responsible for recording the time of death of the convicted War Criminals at Nuremburg after the war. He saw them hanged -- he stood there with a stopwatch. He was 21 years old.
My father spent two years in the U.S. Military. He spent a lifetime in the corporate world. After twenty years as a world-class hotel manager, turning entire properties from liabilities into assets, he was let go without so much as a thank-you dinner or a handshake. Twenty years of service. He was a four-star general in the corporate world for two decades, and that was his reward.
Monday afternoon, at 1 pm, I stood underneath the McClellan arch at ANC. There were 13 family members there. There were also 40 men in uniform. I was stunned.
They took my dad's ashes, in what looked like a really nice cigar box (what a little box for such a big man, I thought at that moment), and placed it in what looked like a metallic coffin on the back of a horse-drawn caisson. His ashes were handled by other twenty-one year old men, men as young as he had been, men whose fathers were children when my dad was in uniform. Everything was inspected, checked, and handled with awesome, palpable, radiating reverence and respect.
As we walked behind the caisson, the band played not a dirge, but a march... a tune that left me searching for the right adjective, which I didn't find until the flight home. It was triumphal. It was the sound of Caesar entering Rome; the sound of a hero coming home. It was the only time during the service that I really began to cry.
My father received a military funeral: the folded flag, the 21 gun salute, the honor guard, and a Chaplain named Crisp who declared a grateful nation was welcoming their brother William home to rest among heroes.
My dad served for two years. He wrote on the back of his Army officer class graduation photo that he expected to die fighting for his country within a few months. Most everybody who signed his photo wrote the same thing.
The chaplain said, looking my stepmom in the eyes like this was the first time he'd ever said the words, that the men and women buried here had agreed to lay down their lives for their country and each other, and that THIS, not rank, or social status, or length in service, is what entitled them to be buried in America's most sacred ground.
Before the ceremony, I was looking at the headstones, and it's sad how each area of Arlington is like a forlorn vintage: here are buried the veterans who died around 1995, there is the 1982 pasture, the mid-fifties crop over on yonder hill. And standing between a Major and a Lt. Colonel, I saw a headstone for a PFC who was born in 1979, the year I entered college, and who had died in 1998. This young man, not even twenty, couldn't have been in the service for more than a few months, and yet there he lay, with the same headstone as colonels and generals and the many, many sergeants that cover those fields.
That is American honor, and nowhere else in the world does it exist in such a naked, magnificent form. Each of these men and women, this band of brothers, receiving the same heartfelt respect. For my father, who died at age 77, it was the honoring of a contract he had signed more than half a century before, defending Europe and helping bring those criminal bastards to justice. It was a contract paid in full, one that has given my family and me an indescribable sense of comfort and pride.
As we were leaving, it dawned on me that the ugly brown-grey building I had been looking at across the road looked suddenly familiar. I asked the funeral coordinator if that was, in fact, the Pentagon, and he replied that it was... indeed, it was the side that the aircraft struck.
On September 11, 2001, this man was about to conduct a morning service on a hill about 1/2 mile from that brown-grey wall. He heard a roar and a whine, saw a silver blur fifty feet above his head, and watched as a 757 immolated itself against the side of the Pentagon. It was my unpleasant duty to inform him that a book claiming that the plane crash had never happened, but was rather an intelligence service plot, had become one of the best-selling books in France, the country my father and millions of other Americans were willing to die for in order to liberate as young men.
My mother remains, to this day, a proud British Subject, the daughter of a man Awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1954 for his service in the Royal Marines. She, my grandfather and uncle were nearly murdered by Egyptian mobs during the Suez crisis, and she is fiercely proud of both her native country and the one she married into. Yet she said that nowhere in the world do ordinary servicemen or women receive anything like this level of honor and respect and reverence, and she is right. All nations honor their generals and heroes. This nation honors privates and sergeants in indistinguishable fashion.
Walking behind the flag-draped caisson of an Army 2nd Lieutenant that day, I felt that my father was receiving the funeral of the President of the United States. And, number of people on the parade route aside, as a matter of fact, he was.