Everyone has experienced the torture of watching monstrous young men, men who have apparently been scoured of any shred of conscience, going about killing everyone they can find. Everyone has equally experienced the torture of seeing a man carrying the body of a little boy who was drowned while fleeing the horror of the world created by those monstrous young men. The juxtaposition of those two experiences forces us to face a critical question, a question beyond all others, a question that might very well decide our fate as a culture and perhaps even as a species. It goes beyond the obvious question of how we expunge these deviate moral mutants. It goes even beyond the question of how we respond to the pleas of these thousands upon thousands who give up all they have to flee the hell that their home has become.
The real question, the question that is being dodged, ignored, evaded, but the question that will define us is not easy to formulate, not because it is so complicated but, on the contrary, because it is so simple. It is the first question, the key question, the question that precedes all other questions. It is the question of meaning, of worth, of value, of significance. It is the question of how we define ourselves. Who are we? What do we stand for? What is it that gives us our identity?
There was something sinister about the Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump demanding that we uproot millions of people and build a wall between us and our neighbors and close our borders to those oppressed by violence and hatred and poverty. What made it so much worse than just bad policy was that Trump insisted that we had to do these things “if we are a country.” To be a country, he was suggesting, means building our own isolated kingdom, identifying ourselves by our assets and our powers, and therefore relating to all other nations and all other people as adversaries, opponents, rivals to those assets and powers by which we have defined ourselves.
There is nothing novel about defining a group of people by power. Kings and czars and dictators have been doing that for centuries. The problem is that, if you define yourself by power, your use of power will ultimately result in your own destruction. As a great thinker who suffered through the wars of the twentieth century once put it, “Not only modern war but every war employs arms that turn against those who wield them.” If you define yourself by power, then you have agreed to the use of power against you. Justice itself will be defined by the use of power. More accurately, there is no such thing as justice or the morality that grounds justice. Justice is the will of the strongest, and there will always eventually be a power stronger than yours, and that power will destroy you. Value, worth, meaning, are all just propaganda techniques.
The problem is that America was not created on the basis of power. It was, in fact, created precisely in opposition to a rule by power. The logic of the Declaration of Independence begins with a first principle, a principle so critical and so elemental that it is self-evident, i.e., impossible to deny. All human beings are created equal, and each human being is endowed by his or her creator with certain inalienable rights, including (but not limited to) life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Being an American is based, not on power, but on the responsibility for the rights of others.
No doubt the questions of responding to ISIS violence and caring for the refugees from the violence of the middle east and elsewhere are difficult, and no doubt the answers to those questions are complex. Before we can begin to answer them, however, we must decide the elemental question of what we stand for. We are a country only so long as we stay true to the ideals upon which we were built. About that, at least one thing is sure: we were not built on walls.