07 August 2006

A Fate Worse Than Death

I've read clammyc's diary entitled "Either You Are for Bombings and Killings or You Are Not," which argues, in part that life, and an end to war, should be preserved at all costs.

...What it really boils down to is this: You are either for finding a peaceful solution, regardless of how difficult it is or how long the odds are, or you are for the justification of killing more people for whatever reason makes you sleep better at night. ...

Killing leads to more killing. Plain and simple. If your town or house is raided or bombed, or if a family member is killed by a bomb or by "accident", chances are that you are going to be pissed and hold a grudge.


Behind these absolutist words is fear: the fear, above all, of death. If we condone killing under any circumstance, so the reasoning goes, we oppose the basic tenet of human nature: the incessant drive toward life.

The argument is viscerally persuasive, but, in my view, misses the point entirely. Civilized society is, in some ways, the triumph of the intellect over certain parts of human nature. And democracy demands an acceptance of the idea that a life with no liberty is worse than death.

Great American leaders throughout history have understood this fact. Whether fighting "to make the world safe for democracy," in Woodrow Wilson's words, or "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth," in Abraham Lincoln's, they have understood that democracies are easy prey for zealot conquerors; they require strong, active, and unified governments in order to hold their own on the world scene.

But the earliest and, arguably, the most eloquent defense of the principle of democratic defense comes from today's text: Patrick Henry's famous speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses on March 23, 1775.

First, a bit of history. This was a time after the Boston Massacre, after the Boston Tea Party, and just before Lexington and Concord. Tensions were boiling over in Massachusetts, but had not yet reached fever pitch in Virginia. In fact, one could easily have made the argument, Virginia was not oppressed at all by the events in Massachusetts, an allied but politically distant entity. Virginians could have argued that further inflaming England by opposing the so-called Intolerable Acts would have been inviting bloodshed, making peace impossible. In fact, many did. But Patrick Henry disagreed with these people. He explained why in the following words.

No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the house. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The question before the house is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at the truth, and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.

Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the numbers of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth, to know the worst, and to provide for it.

I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House. Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received?

Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with those warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlement assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us: they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne! In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation.

There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free--if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending--if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained--we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us! They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength but irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. The millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable--and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.

It is in vain, sir, to extentuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace--but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!


I have been to the House of Burgesses and sat in the same seats those men did that spring afternoon. The comfortable, breezy chamber seems a world away from the bloody battlefields that their vote would create in the American wilderness. Few in the chamber had ever seen military action; Henry himself had not, though he would soon lead the local militia against British Royal Governor Lord Dunmore in the famous "Gunpower Incident". Yet they voted for what they increasingly knew would be military aggression, because they knew that the British had inaugurated a war greater than life: a war against liberty, against freedom.

If we truly believe in our liberties, we should not be afraid to defend them with our lives, or, as voters or as leaders, with the lives of those in our charge. In the case of Israel's current war on Hesbollah, consider the consequences of not fighting the war. Israeli citizens afraid to walk the streets or shop at markets for fear their children will be killed by suicide bombers; Israeli soldiers unable to patrol the border without running the risk of being kidnapped; for Israel "there is no retreat but submission and slavery." Because democratic nations are founded on the fervent belief that there is a fate worse than death: fear.

The compassionate individual understands that bloodshed should be avoided if at all possible, and it should not be invoked unless freedoms really are at risk; the most famous recent instance of the violation of this principle is, of course, the disastrous war in Iraq. But democracy cannot survive unless we acknowledge that there are beliefs worth defending with guns, because its enemies have no compunctions about shooting its defenders. Too often peace is "betrayal with a kiss" -- convincing ourselves, for expediency's sake, that our beliefs do not require blood in their defense. And sometimes death is necessary so that the most important of Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms -- freedom from fear -- can be realized for others.

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