Our better selves
In his recent State of the Union speech, President George W. Bush said what needed to be said and said it very well. But one paragraph in that speech stood out, to this observer anyway, more than all the rest. It was when President Bush said:
“None of us would ever wish the evil that was done on Sept. 11, yet after America was attacked it was as if our entire country looked into a mirror and saw our better selves. We were reminded that we are citizens, with obligations to each other, to our country and to history. We began to think less of the goods we can accumulate, and more about the good we can do.”
Many of us are humbled by the better selves that were displayed on September 11th and on the days and nights that followed; not only at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and in that lonely crash site in Pennsylvania, but around the world.
What is it, we might ask, that produces the men and women who volunteer to leave home and hearth and serve at great risk to their own health and even their very lives? To serve in places that one Special Forces trooper described as “the armpits of the world.”
One of the interesting facets of the fighting in Afghanistan is how few of our casualties have been caused by hostile fire or action. And yet, our losses have not been small to a nation that holds the life of each and every one of our fellow citizens as precious. The overwhelming majority of our losses of life and limb in the war on terror are due to the kinds of hazards our men and women in uniform face almost every day.
This should be one of the great lessons for an American people who no longer have the contact with the military that conscription once gave us, for an American Congress whose ranks are now filled with representatives and senators most of whom have never served in the military. That lesson is this: even without a shooting war, even without actual combat, the military life, even in times of peace, is very hazardous.
But it has to be that way if our men and women are to have the kind of tough, realistic training that prepares them to fight and to win in time of war. President Bush says we need to raise their pay. No one who has an inkling about the kinds of sacrifices our military must make in either peace or war, would gainsay the idea of taking better care of our men and women in uniform.
Yet, no amount of money induces these heroes to go out and do what they do. They do it because they love this country, because they love the freedoms it provides their loved ones, because they seek the satisfaction of doing something that needs to be done and doing it well. They along with our police, our firefighters, our emergency medical services personnel and even those who give loving care to our elderly are just some of our better selves.
Unfortunately, we continue to see our worst selves as well. Recently, three people were gunned down in a bowling alley robbery in Denver. A mother drowns her five children. Murderers break out of prison in Texas. Kids rot their brains with meth, with marijuana, with other illegal drugs. Kids shoot their teachers and schoolmates.
What is it that produces a Medic who will crawl through the dirt, dust and scorpions of Afghanistan to tend the wounds of his fellow soldiers or even those of the enemy and what is it that produces a person whose self-absorbed indulgence leads them to a life of crime?
If you figure that one out, be sure and let someone know.
William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, is the co-author of The Grand Conspiracy by William Penn – a novel about terrorism in Colorado’s high country.
©2002. William Hamilton