Friday, August 19, 2005
Sacrifice and Solidarity
After the twin towers collapsed on September 11, 2001, most Americans felt prepared to make personal sacrifices in the name of national security and solidarity. The crisis renewed our understanding of the common purpose that unites people in a democracy. This was especially true of New Yorkers, who saw their fellow citizens drop their usual defensive masks and reach across social divides in a hundred different ways, suddenly speaking with the ease and frankness of friends.
We witnessed a similar spirit of cooperation in response to last December’s tsunami disaster. Although Americans have an international reputation for being stingy, competitive, and vain, we can be galvanized into concerted, selfless action when we grasp with our imaginations the greatness of a cause.
We want to feel that our lives have meaning beyond our personal desires. We admire figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela, who sacrificed their own safety and comfort for many years in the service of a great cause. We may now disagree about what our response to the tragedy of 9/11 should have been, but few of us at the time weren’t ready to take responsibility and to make sacrifices for the greater good.
But something else happened instead, and the moment passed. Our government did not ask us to volunteer for the armed services, or even to pay higher taxes to fund our military operations. We weren’t asked to cut our oil consumption in order to lessen our energy dependence. Just the opposite: we were told that a smaller, professional army was better; that the country needed more tax cuts; and that energy consumption wouldn’t be a problem. The message was clear: your government will win the war; you go about your business and don’t worry about it. Meanwhile, the military consistently downplayed the very real sacrifices being made by our troops, who have had to fight longer, harder, and with less protection than they expected.
Say what you will about the sometimes coercive politics associated with the proliferation of flags, ribbons, and patriotic slogans; the intensity of such gestures is a symptom of how few real outlets we’ve had for expressing our solidarity in our time of national crisis.
And now Cindy Sheehan appears, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq. Her quavering voice makes us uncomfortable, demanding assurances no one could provide for an anguish few of us can imagine. That discomfort is the very source of her power to engage us. We know that she, like so many of our soldiers and Marines, has forded a river of fire. Her presence reminds us of the pain and sacrifice that our troops and their families have suffered for many months now, almost silently. Her vigil outside the president’s ranch in Crawford threatens to bring to light truths we’ve conspired to hide from ourselves in our time of relative complacency: the grief of the families, the torn bodies of the dead, the torn lives of the wounded, the flag-draped coffins, the ravaged towns of Iraq, the uncounted thousands of civilian dead, and above all the loss of a clear sense of mission.
Until now, it has been difficult for the president’s political opponents to compete against the carefully cultivated majesty of his office. But motherhood supplies its own majesty, and Ms. Sheehan’s presence in Crawford has the potential to remind all of us of our responsibilities. Not Iraq itself, but the disaster of Iraq belongs to us now.
As with Vietnam, our time of anguish is just beginning. Now the sacrifices should begin for the rest of us.