The close of the year is the time to look back and ask grand questions about what we have learned and how we are different. In the next 30 days there will be many, many answers. But of all the ways we have changed since Sept. 11, the most heartening lies in what we believe about ourselves. And what we believe in—or, better, what we have remembered to believe in—is the ideal of America as a righteous nation dedicated to the defeat of evil.
Not everyone believes, of course. Some bristle at the simplicity of branding our present enemy an unqualified evil. But surely the truth isn’t far from that. One may try to explain away the butchery of our September dead as a natural response to American policies, but one cannot change the simple fact that not all dissenters express their views through murder. Those who do are evil indeed.
Others damn America for the collective suffering of all humanity. Theirs is a unidirectional accountability. They blame our sanctions for starving Iraqi children, but they excuse the tyrant who squanders his nation’s income building weapons of mass destruction. They blame our war of self-defense for the plight of Afghan refugees, but they fail to condemn those whose hatred made war necessary.
They are a confused splinter of our population, and they persuade nobody. The people of Afghanistan will benefit from our having been there. Can one consider American efforts to provide humanitarian aid and question that our intentions are just? Can one see children suddenly free to fly kites in the sky over Kabul and doubt there was something satanic in the oppressors we expelled?
As a people we are united in our answer. We understand that the battle between good and evil is real, and we understand on which side we fight. Perhaps that is the understanding of which President Lawrence H. Summers spoke at his installation: “not the soft understanding that glides over questions of right and wrong, but the hard-won comprehension that the threat before us demands.”
You see this understanding all over, but it is most striking in the kind of men we want to lead us, and the kind of words we want them to speak. Regardless of whether we chose George W. Bush last November, there is no arguing that we have chosen him now. And beneath the stratospheric approval ratings is, above all, a man who believes in the rightness of his cause. You hear it in his rhetoric: Americans are "a people of faith;" Osama bin Laden is the "evil one;" "freedom and fear are at war," and "God is not neutral between them." It is no small matter that on that very bad night in September, when a shaken nation beheld an evil it supposed could not exist, this president chose to quote a psalm invoking God’s protection of the righteous. Yea, though we walked through the valley of the shadow of death, we would fear no evil.
How different these words are from the maudlin theatrics of our last president, that little man who couldn’t quite distinguish between right and wrong, that charming sinner, that self-absorbed adolescent who, according to friends, has lamented the fact that his presidency lacked a moment so defining as bloody Tuesday. How insincere words of righteousness would sound in that mouth of his, which said so many insincere things.
Bill appealed to our fear of being small. His insecurity demanded that the universe revolve around him; his self-indulgence suggested he believed it actually did. His career was one long bid to overcome the sense of inadequacy that racks our souls in the lonely minutes before sleep. We have all felt that fear. We all want to be somebody. So we pitied ourselves by pitying him.
Then, one crisp September morning, the Clintonian cult of self crashed down. Our new president asked us to believe in things bigger than ourselves, and we did. We believe in many big things now, like the kindness of children sending dollars to Afghanistan and the courage of firemen sprinting into the mouth of hell. But most especially we have remembered to believe in those two victims of the modern academy: America and God.
For most of our history, we had believed that they were real and they were allies. When we said, “In God we trust,” we meant it. The idea that all men were endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights was taken literally, and we defended it with our blood. The America of our fathers was, first, a spiritual society, and it built a democracy on the proposition that God wanted mankind to be free. Only very recently did this belief go out of vogue, when our parents’ generation inherited a righteous superpower and rejected its moral grounding like the spoiled sons of a self-made millionaire. Yet here we are in this new world where “God Bless America” is no cliché and the kites of Kabul tell us that what we have can bless others, too.
As the year’s decline returns us to a season of believing, I think it proper that we renew our commitment to the strength of our righteousness. Now, when we are bruised, when we have tasted blood in our mouth and smelled the breath of wickedness and begun the long hard fight to beat it back with the liberating power of freedom. Our autumn was a progress toward this end. The annual festival of fear was truly terrifying this October, but it passed. November brought in its stead a season for the giving of thanks. And it is part of thanksgiving to acknowledge that there is One to whom thanks is due. In the coming month, many will celebrate Him. More still will continue their supplication that He rescue the heaven-rescued land one more time.
In this season, it would be well to recall what Rudyard Kipling once penned. He wrote for another people and another time, but his plea has of necessity become our own:
GOD of our fathers, known of old—
Lord of our far-flung battle-line—
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget!
We had forgotten. But this season of believing is a season of remembrance, too.
Jason L. Steorts ’01-’03 is a philosophy concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.