December 28, 2003

Despair Is Not an Option

Two more US soldiers have died in Iraq. For what? Lies, a neo-con wet dream of "Empire," domestic political cover (that backfired), the war-profiteering of cronies and sponsors, and yes, oil.

William Sloane Coffin: Finally, ironically and predictably, the Bush doctrine of unilateralism and preventive war has recruited more terrorists than it has cowed. Clearly the past two years have been morally and politically disastrous.

Defend the Constitution, Support Our Troops, Show Up
for Democracy in 2004: Defeat Bush (again!)

Published in the January 12, 2004 issue of The Nation

Despair Is Not an Option
by William Sloane Coffin

Many people believed at the time that the trauma of
9/11 would change the world. My feeling was that our
American response would be far more crucial. The
President, after all, did not have to declare war. He
could have called the terrorists mass murderers, their
deeds crimes against humanity. He could have said to
the American people and the world, "We will respond,
but not in kind. We will not seek to avenge the death
of innocent Americans by the death of innocent victims
elsewhere, lest we become what we abhor. We refuse to
ratchet up the cycle of violence that brings only ever
more death, destruction and deprivation. What we will
do is build coalitions with other nations. We will
share intelligence, freeze assets and engage in
forceful extraditions of terrorists if internationally
sanctioned. I promise to do all in my power to see
justice done, but by the force of law only, never by
the law of force."

It was a ripe moment--to educate the soul of the
nation, to improve the quality of our suffering. We
had lost our sense of invulnerability and superpower
invincibility, but as these were only illusions, we
should not have grieved their passing. Other nations
too had been unfairly hurt, many of them, and far
worse than we. But instead of deepening our kinship
with the world's suffering, the President chose to
invoke an almost unlimited sense of entitlement to
pursue in our own way what he termed a struggle "to
rid the world of evil."

As a result we squandered the widely felt sympathy
that was ours on 9/11, symbolized by the headline in
Le Monde the following day: Nous sommes tous
Américains. We also squandered the near-record budget
surplus that could have helped victims abroad as well
as the homeless and hungry in the United States, where
poverty is a tragedy that great wealth makes a sin.
Finally, ironically and predictably, the Bush doctrine
of unilateralism and preventive war has recruited more
terrorists than it has cowed. Clearly the past two
years have been morally and politically disastrous.

But tempus fugit--an election year is upon us, another
ripe moment for educating and for changing regimes in
Washington. While turned off by the President's
chirping optimism, I still find encouraging such
developments as the following:

Although still claiming moral clarity, the President
is clearly losing moral authority. The stubborn
persistence of evil in Iraq, Afghanistan and here at
home is helping Americans to slough off the
self-righteousness that threatens our capacity for

Reservoirs of anger and common sense have already been
tapped by the presidential campaigns, especially those
of Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean.

The mammoth mistakes of globalization, highlighted by
developing countries like Brazil, are being
acknowledged by First World nations and important
world organizations.

At home the bloat of the military, the plight of the
poor and the sorrow of the aged and infirm are
mounting concerns of big-city mayors and state
governors, who stare helplessly at their
deficit-plagued coffers.

When the chief legal officer of the land fears
freedom, more and more Americans are fearing for the
freedom of the nation. Federal courts too are reacting
to preserve constitutional rights.

Like politicians, clergy can be so cautious as to
become moral failures. Now, however, they are signing
on by the hundreds to the Clergy Leadership Network,
recently formed to counter the influence of the
Christian right. They are eager to resurrect two great
biblical mandates--to pursue justice and to seek
peace. They are appalled by tax breaks that fill the
rich with good things and send the poor empty away;
most are for the global abolition of nuclear weapons;
and most, I would imagine, view marriage as a human
right, not a reward for being heterosexual.

Finally, I think of the Women in Black in Israel, the
Liberian women praying alongside the road, the
whistleblowers everywhere who are trying to dim fears
and raise hopes. So much is at stake in the new year
that despair is not an option. Better by far to heed
the poet and double the heart's might.

William Sloane Coffin, pastor emeritus of the
Riverside Church in Manhattan, is the author, most
recently, of Credo (Westminster).

© 2003 The Nation


Posted by richard at December 28, 2003 10:50 AM