Friday, May 06, 2005

"War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning"

Questions of identity redound with issues of community, culture, social mores, ethics, and morality. We decide who we are based on who we think other people are, and the decisions can be astoundingly parochial. I knew a woman, a few years my senior, when I was living in St. Louis. She had lived in a particular suburb all her life, and told me one day that she and her husband had moved away for a few years, but moved back as quickly as that good. Being a transplant from Texas myself, I understood the tug of homesickness, and wondered where she had moved to. It was another suburb not ten minutes away, in the heart of metropolitan St. Louis, a suburb my wife drove to every day for her job.

Parochialism is seldom as dramatic as that, which makes it all that much harder to see. But parochialism is at the heart of our human nature. Jean-Paul Sartre argued for an ethic based on the responsibility of choosing an ethic for all of humankind, when one makes an ethical choice for oneself. Ethical choices, of course, cannot exist outside of a system, a set of rules, of boundaries on what choices are acceptable, what choices unacceptable. Sartre realized that, even in our individual and existential freedom, we are not free to make choices absent any consequences. When we choose, he argued, we choose for all humankind: when we decide what is right and what is wrong, we decide for all humankind. He meant for that kind of choice, that kind of knowledge, to make us humble; to even burden us with the awful responsibility.

But sometimes, it just turns us into monsters.

Re-reading "The Colonel" this year for the poetry section of my Freshman English course, I realized how much the imagery of the poem had become a metaphor for the fear and paranoia that seems rampant in the Administration. When the President traveled to Buckingham Palace, he insisted on moving around the grounds in a bulletproof car. He also demanded extraordinary security measures. Press reports at the time indicated that the Palace only balked when a request was made for a steel-lined room for the President to sleep in. He refuses to address crowds which are not pre-selected. The security for the Inaugural Parade this year was so severe, even George Will commented derisively on it. But that level of security reflects both a level of paranoia, and the perception that it is needed in order to maintain control.

The wall around the house the Colonel lives in includes barbed wire and glass that will "scoop the kneecaps from a man's legs or cut his hands to lace." He has bars on his windows, keeps a gun handy. Secure enough in his power that he can horrify his guests with his barbarity and his grisly totems, he is still not secure enough to enjoy what his efforts have won him. He will never be secure enough. What he has gained, can be taken away. His power rests on fear. His house, as the poem presents it, is a metaphor of that fear, which cuts both ways.

When we choose, we choose for all humankind. When we decide what is right and wrong, we decide for all humankind. Deciding in favor of power does not lead to power, or security; because power only works by generating fear.

Hard to be secure, when you are generating so much fear.

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