I want to consider this week the implications of a cartoon strip, appearing last week in the New York Times and other places, by a Mr. Ted Rall, mocking the grief of those who lost loved ones in 9-11 attacks, and of the widow of Daniel Pearl. Several quotations from the comic will suffice.
“They’re eerily calm. They smile and crack jokes and laugh out loud. They are the scourge of the media. Terror widows.”
Mrs. Pearl: “Of course it’s a bummer that they slashed my husband’s throat, but the worst was having to watch the Olympics alone.”
Another widow: “I keep waiting for Kevin to come home, but I know he never will. Fortunately, the $3.2 million I collected from the Red Cross keeps me warm at night.”
And so on.
Among the many responsibilities and privileges of a free people, one of the noblest is the task of forming and maintaining principled resolve in time of war. Citizens of the free American Republic must supply something beyond what was demanded of the subjects of warlike kingdoms. Along with willing soldiers and a beehive of impassioned support at home, we must supply as well the sustained national act of will to prosecute the war. And this will must be formed from a genuine understanding that our cause is just. Our leaders can and must help in this – indeed, there may be no more important responsibility they face than ensuring that we only wield the sword when our cause is just. But the ultimate responsibility is ours.
Of course, an entire people cannot have so perfect an understanding as its statesmen of the causes that justify, even require, going to war. Human history has taught us time and time again that as the simple faith of the peasant necessarily lacks much of the precision of the theologian’s doctrine, so the judgment of any nation will always lack much of the sophistication of the statesman’s subtle reasoning. But, like the faith of the holy peasant, the people’s grasp of the essential realities can be astonishingly complete, and deep – even wise – when it is in a form that a cynic might find simplistic.
Thus the importance of such events, such images, as Pearl Harbor aflame and the Lusitania sinking beneath the waves. These events became slogans precisely because the proximate cause of a just war, which exemplifies the evil being fought, has to be remembered for what it was if the people are to maintain their steady judgment and purpose. Such events are essential icons of the people’s faith that their cause is just.
The World Trade Center stands in history with Pearl Harbor. It was an occasion of profound grief – personal and national – for those lost. That grief embodies the cause for which our young men and women are risking their lives and dying now. To ridicule the grief is to attack the cause of the war. It is to assault something vital to the moral support required for the war effort.
Should such a cartoonist be punished, arrested? Shot at dawn? Or does any such suggestion violate principles which are themselves crucial to the cause we fight to defend?
To answer these questions, we must first of all retain our confidence in certain moral judgments, in our capacity to make certain basic distinctions. Serious debate about the war and its purpose is crucial, and freedom to conduct this debate, in Congress and elsewhere, must be non-negotiable in all but the most genuinely extreme circumstances.
But this brutal and inhuman comic strip was not debate – it was an assault on the decent national sensibilities crucial to the war effort. Such assaults are a kind of pornography in civic discourse. And like our response to pornographers, our toleration of Mr. Rall, and our means for dealing with him, are matters for prudential consideration.
A free people should normally suppress such activities through private moral judgment and association. Pornographers should be shunned by all, and likewise Mr. Ted Rall should have been fired immediately by those with professional authority over him, or in contractual relations with him. Such action in defense of the decent judgment of this people in regard to 9-11 would be more than sufficient to keep such as Mr. Rall from subverting our national resolve.
But it is worth remembering that when serious and sustained attempts to undermine public opinion on a matter genuinely essential to national life cannot be resisted by other means, governmental action may be necessary. For governmental action is also the action of a free people. Such was the case, despite all the continuing petulant complaints of superficial “civil libertarians,” when President Lincoln was obliged to suppress rebellion in some northern citizens (some of whom happened to be newspaper editors), so that the rebellion of many more southern citizens could be effectively ended, and our great Civil War to maintain the Union brought to a victorious conclusion.
Then, as today, assaults on the decent judgment of American citizens regarding the just and noble character of a national struggle are, literally, attempts to poison the sovereign. We, the people, are that sovereign. And we should not tolerate those who seek to debase our judgment and destroy our unity and resolve.