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May 23, 2005

Civic Duty

Mary and I have a friend who was a young naval officer on convoy duty in the North Atlantic during the Second World War.  An epiphany he had about civic duty one cold, wet night on the bridge while waiting for torpedoes and wondering why he was there both informs our view of the world and challenges us.

So there is our friend with a cold cup of muddy coffee and cold rain trickling down the back of his neck in the early hours of the morning when he suddenly does realize why he is there: the German people didn’t do their civic duty!  All over the world people are fighting and dying and suffering – not least among them the Germans – and to a large degree it is because the German people let Hitler come to power and tolerated him, supported him as their leader.

Our friend survived that trip and the rest of the war.  When he came back to his home town which was then run by a corrupt political machine, he marched into the headquarters of the tiny good-government reform movement and announced that he was volunteering.  Other people must have felt the same way; the good guys won and they cleaned up their city. Our friend did very well in insurance and investing; he also did a lot of good in politics.  He raised money prodigiously for people he believed in; he served on innumerable civic boards and committees; he is a philanthropist; and he remains a respected voice in his state.

The Iraqis didn’t do their civic duty either.  You can argue about whether the US should have gotten into the resulting mess but you can’t argue that Iraq was anything other than a disaster for its own people and a threat to at least its own neighborhood.  Yesterday I saw television coverage of an Iraqi blaming the US for pictures of Saddam Hussein in his skivvies.  “He was our President,” the Iraqi said.  “He should be shown respect.”  Get real!  The obscenity is the man, not his clothes.  What’s wrong is that Iraq has still not gotten its act together enough to try Saddam and patrol its own streets – although the high turnout for dangerous elections was a good sign.  It’s the terrorists that civic-minded Iraqis need not only to condemn but control.  Then the US troops can go home.

(Yes, the picture shouldn’t have been released.  Whoever did it should be punished.  But please don’t divert any investigators who could be hunting down terrorists.  This “crime” is pretty far down the list of important events.  It’s newsworthiness is considerably less than the Michael Jackson case and I would prefer to never hear about that again.)

Afghanis didn’t do their civic duty.  The result was the Taliban and Afghanistan becoming home base for al Qaeda.  Not much doubt that we had to get involved in cleaning out the rat’s nest that developed.  And not much doubt that most Afghanis have gained  by our intervention.  If we hadn’t had to intervene, there wouldn’t be interrogations at Guantanamo Bay.  Even if the story about mistreatment of the Koran were true,  it wouldn’t justify killing people in riots.  Newsweek didn’t kill those people;  American “behavior” didn’t kill those people.  Bloody-minded thugs did.  It is the terrorists – whether or not they claim to act in the name of the Koran – that civic-minded Afghanis need not only to condemn but control.  Then there won’t be US troops patrolling their streets.

A very hard case is North Korea.  Its people are starving as a result of “not doing their civic duty” and tolerating Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.  Just as in Iraq and Afghanistan, a citizen’s uprising in North Korea against a ruthless despot would require many great acts of bravery and, in the short-term, intensify the suffering.  I wouldn’t begin to claim that I, for example, would be brave enough to be in the opposition.  But what’s the alternative?  A nation that just gets poorer and poorer?  A nation which extorts food from its neighbors with nuclear threats?  If that goes on long enough, someone – probably the US – will end up being the police force.

There is much less excuse for those of us who live in New Jersey not doing our civic duty than there is for people who live in places where they have to be heroes to do theirs.  We deserve the State government we have.  We have a responsibility to change it from the disgrace that it is.  I certainly haven’t done enough about that.

That’s the problem with our friend’s epiphany: it applies close to home as well as far away.

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