Letters from Readers: The Moral Imperative of Self Defense

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I have been following both the national and local presses since September 11, including  your own newspaper, which last week I much enjoyed. The only exception, however, was Sarah Kanouse’s editorial “Democracy Demands Dissent” (p. 3), which I found morally and rhetorically irresponsible and which requires a response.

Kanouse charges that the essence of American military history is “a history of atrocity, repression, and racism.” She proceeds to list a series of acts of “mass violence and sponsorship of terrorism” that the US government has perpetrated over the years, ranging from the
Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 to the present. I agree with Kanouse’s list, and, as a professor of history at U of I, I could easily multiply the examples. (It is worth noting in passing that similar lists could easily be compiled for France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Australia, Brazil, South Africa, and the large majority of the world’s nations. The past is
a very bloody place.) Our nation is indeed deeply stained, especially in its treatment of ethnic and racial minorities.

My main disagreement is with the grossly lopsided nature of Kanouse’s presentation. Just as easily and consequentially, a second series of historical events could be cited in which the US government has acquitted itself well, none of which figure in Kanouse’s tendentious and reflexively anti-government interpretation. Have there been no “just wars” (The War of Independence, the Civil War, the Second World War) in American history? Was the GI Bill of Rights that educated millions of World-War-II veterans (including my father) a bad thing? How about the Marshall Plan that reconstructed Europe after 1945? Does Kanouse think it is criminal that South Korea remained democratic during the second half of the 20th century and that Saddam Hussein was expelled from Kuwait? The Berlin Airlift, the work of the US Peace Corps, countless instances of humanitarian relief: are all these events and actions irrelevant to her score card? This list, too, could be lenghtened easily. Predictably, Kanouse cites the tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans interred during the Second World War; she is loathe to mention, however, the successful defeat of Japanese fascism and the tens of MILLIONS of European and Asian immigrants (again, like my Italian-American grandparents) who came to and thrived in the US.

My point is not that one list is longer than the other: it is, rather, that historical acts and  episodes must be evaluated on their own merits. On those grounds, the present situation demands a flexible, multi-pronged response, part of which must be military. Personally, I have been uncomfortable with–in some instances, vehemently opposed to–several American military interventions during my lifetime, and I came of age politically on anti-Vietnam sentiment. But a direct attack of unparalled ferocity on the American homeland and its civilian citizenry is surely a very different matter. I believe it is naive in the extreme to think that the fundamentalist Islamic extremists who destroyed the World Trade Center–and who murdered Anwar Sadat in 1981, tried to assassinate the Pope, killed hundreds of Africans in US embassies, etc., etc.–can be stopped without the use of force. Of course that force needs to be targeted and intelligent. I fear, however, that if Kanouse, rather than Roosevelt, had been president in the 1930s and 1940s, a swastika would now fly over the capitol in Washington D.C. And when the anthrax cloud is spreading over Chicago, and the wind is blowing southward, it will not suffice to cite the errors of American foreign policy in the Spanish-American War over 100 years ago.

Kanouse self-righteously lectures her readers on the meaning of democracy, the essence of which she percieves to be the right to dissent and diversity. True in part. The earlier reader who telephoned angrily into her home is obviously out of line. As Kanouse asserts, she is also certainly entitled to publicize her own views on current events (even if her “blame America” interpretation, as President Clinton recently dubbed it, is shared by only a small percentage of Americans, largely from the Naderite left). But she appears oblivious to the fact that the democratic freedoms she takes  for granted are not an inevitable inheritance. They are historical achievements that had to be fought for in order to be secured–often with high loss of life and much patriotic  commitment–and that may well have to be fought to be preserved again. There is no recognition in Kanouse’s editorial of the physical and moral imperative of self-defense.

Mark S Micale

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