2 cheers for Jim McDermott

By Ellen Ratner

Prof. William Ian Miller, in his book “The Mystery of Courage,” notes that of the many different forms of courage, two have always stood out as especially admirable: physical courage and moral courage. People show physical courage by exposing their lives to danger for a higher cause. One thinks of the police and firemen of 9-11, the passengers of Flight 93 and the young people of our armed forces serving in places you wouldn’t visit on a dare.

Moral courage is another matter. Summarizing the views of one hardened veteran of Vietnam, Miller says, “As hard as physical courage is, it is easier than moral courage, easier to be shot at than to be laughed at and scorned. Moral courage is lonely courage. It often requires making a stand, calling attention to yourself or running the risk of being singled out in an unpleasant way.”

Which brings me to Congressman Jim McDermott. Whatever you think of him or his views or the way he explains himself, you have to credit him with moral courage. The Democratic Party, of which McDermott is one of the most liberal members, has been notably silent about Bush’s proposed war. All they’ve managed to do thus far is dance at the margins. Al Gore makes a speech, which, if you read it carefully, is less criticism than pure equivocation. Tom Daschle takes the floor of the Senate and whines interminably about how Bush “politicizes” the war. But he doesn’t say bupkis about the war itself.

Is the new, unprecedented Bush Doctrine of preemption a good idea? Would it set the kind of precedent that would give Russia a free hand in Chechnya, the Chinese a free hand in Taiwan or Pakistan a green light to hit India? Is this war the right war at the right time? These are good questions. But don’t look to the Democratic Party for answers. They’ve been too busy dodging focus groups and poll numbers to do their duty as the loyal opposition and give this democracy the debate it needs – and deserves.

But that was before Jim McDermott came along, picked up a loudspeaker and shouted that maybe, just maybe, the emperor has no clothes. Now everything’s changed. Thanks to McDermott, the debate is where it should be – out in the open. Had the more “responsible” Democratic Party leaders done their jobs, this debate could have started in earnest weeks ago, and perhaps have been decided, one way or another, by now.

In the meantime, McDermott is suffering the obloquy that hits the morally courageous as bullets hit the physically brave. For visiting Baghdad and speaking his mind, he is denounced as a traitor, a congressional Johnny Walker Lindh, a man who should be denied reentry to the United States or if allowed, should be prosecuted for aiding and abetting the enemy.

Some traitor. Unlike some of the strongest neocon boosters of Attack Iraq, McDermott’s actually worn a uniform – two years (1968-1970) in the Navy Medical Corps. (An M.D., he’s also the only licensed psychiatrist in the House of Representatives, but I’ll let that one pass.)

But history may well remember him for what he said in Baghdad. By questioning Bush’s credibility on the war (by the way, he only questioned it, and didn’t call Bush a liar), by presenting the issue in terms that many Arabs share, McDermott has triggered the long overdue debate. Now, our elected representatives will have to take a stand on this thing, pro or con. Isn’t that why we pay them the big bucks? Whether you agree or disagree with McDermott, credit him for at least starting the discussion.

It’s a sign of the times that McDermott felt he had to go all the way to Baghdad to make his statement. Given this rush to war we’re being asked to join, it was probably the only “stage” where he could command a microphone. In Washington, Captain Tom Daschle and his XO Dick Gephardt had already ordered the crew of the submarine USS Democrat to rig for silent running.

Sorry all you armchair patriots, we owe Jim McDermott a debt of gratitude. None other than conservative talk show king Rush Limbaugh suggested that it was a good thing that McDermott spoke out, because now everybody will know where the Democrats stand on this war. He thinks that will hurt the Democrats, and for all I know, he’s right. But at least we’ll have the argument.

If we do go ahead and invade Iraq, a lot of people will be called upon to show real courage. As we proceed down this path, perhaps history will remember the first of these as Congressman Jim McDermott.