Justice and the National Debt
President Obama got it right about Egypt. In his speech following the collapse of the Mubarak Regime, he said: “Egyptians have inspired us, and they’ve done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice is best gained through violence.” The only problem is, as it always seems to be with Americans these days, we don’t listen to our own speeches. He continued: “For in Egypt, it was the moral force of nonviolence— not terrorism, not mindless killing … that bent the arc of history toward justice once more. What Obama failed to insert into his short list of actions that fail to achieve justice was the simple phrase “not war.” And why would Obama forget such a phrase—because of America’s long standing addiction to war as a pathway to justice.
Immediately, I hear the much-ballyhooed platitude to all challenges to military action: “It’s a dangerous world out there.” And, to be sure, the world is dangerous, as I’m sure the Egyptian protesters will attest. But the fact that we live in a world wrought with danger does not justify our seemingly unquenchable thirst for a larger and larger military. And I do not make these statements because I harbor moral objections to military action. I recognize the fact that violence, or the threat of violence, can sometimes stop worst crimes against justice from occurring. What I am asserting is much more practical. The use of military violence not only does not move the world closer to achieving justice, either moral or economic, but more seriously it diverts much needed attention and resources away from the project of justice. One only needs to look at recent American history to see this effect.
Only nine and a half years ago we were dealing with our budget problems. The government had a surplus; we had a world without a competing superpower; we had Republicans in control of government (the party supposedly in favor of smaller government); and we had begun the difficult job of reforming the Welfare State. Then a small group of men, being directed by an even smaller group of men living in Afghanistan, carried out a bold and improbably suicide mission. They flew airplanes into buildings. Then we, behaving like so many Pavlov’s dogs, lost our collective minds. The National Security State ballooned, the financial sector acted like it had no future and no ethical limitations, and the American people shopped, be it for expensive homes, huge SUVs, or just one more happy meal. And now, we as a nation are on the verge of bankruptcy. Yes, I’ll say it. The United States is on the verge of bankruptcy. Osama Bin Laden wins.
And why? Because we cannot accept that simple reality, which we are always preaching to others, that violence cannot achieve justice. We have built the largest, most expensive military industrial complex in human history; yet justice slides further and further out of our grasp. It’s like what we parents preach to our children about the pitfalls of magical thinking. We so want our children to understand the consequences of their actions, even as we, the parents, engage in magical, inconsequential thinking all the time. We want our leaders to deal with the nation’s looming deficit; yet, we don’t want to reduce the cost of healthcare except rhetorically. We want our leaders to slash discretionary spending, but we do not want them to put the largest discretionary spending programs, i.e., the military, on the table. We want our country to have a huge National Security State capable of protecting us from all possible threats, but we don’t want our taxes raised to pay for it. As a long time teacher of high school students, I’m more convinced than ever that the magical thinking engaged in by young people is best taught to them by the adults in their lives. In other words, we adults are excellent teachers: we are a nation of magical thinkers.
It’s time for all Americans to get real. To save this country from ruin, we are going to have to cut the federal budget, starting with the military. We are going to have to raise more revenue, starting with the wealthiest among us. We’re going to have to stop looking for a handout, starting with those who can take care of themselves. And we are going to have stop blaming the other guy, starting with whomever that other guy is standing on the other side of the aisle.