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Issue Date:  March 11, 2005

A nation at risk

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak approves elections with an actual opponent, claiming that a little more democracy would be good for his country.

Popular uprisings in Lebanon cause the fall of a pro-Syrian government, and the United States and France join in calling for an immediate withdrawal of all Syrian military and intelligence forces from Lebanon.

Palestinians are criticizing their own, denouncing bombings that have erupted since the election of the new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Israel’s prime minister Ariel Sharon has shown patience over those same incidents while continuing to press for elimination of settlements in the face of what could be bloody resistance by right-wing settlers.

Even the longtime anti-American Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt declared that the Iraq election Jan. 30 signaled “the start of a new Arab world. The Berlin Wall has fallen.”

Past weeks would suggest that President Bush and his advisers rolled the dice on the game board of the Middle East and came up winners. The language of freedom and democracy is on the table.

This is the Middle East, however, and as we all know one good week does not a road map or a treaty or a democracy make.

In Iraq, those opposing the U.S. presence and the results of the elections continue to display an uncanny ability to disrupt any progress toward a reliable security infrastructure.

That the insurgency can find groups of volunteers in one place at various stages of applying for or engaging in security training suggests several distressing realities. First, the insurgency is informed, able to assemble massive car bombs and determined to disrupt progress; and second, the economic situation in Iraq is desperate enough that young recruits are willing to place their lives in jeopardy.

However, beyond the quickly evident factors that mitigate against a cry of victory, there are other more significant questions that continue to loom over both the Iraq misadventure and the U.S. war against terrorism.

For unless we are willing to concede that any means justify what we perceive to be good ends, then we have to recognize that we are going through a period of history that endangers the nation’s soul.

The United States walked away from the rest of the world and fabricated reasons for invading a sovereign country.

The United States embraced a doctrine of preemptive strike that sets a new precedent for going to war.

The United States permitted torture in the prison at Guantánamo, and our civilian and military officials took months to react to reports of torture at Abu Ghraib and then only acted after photos became public.

The United States exported prisoners to countries where it was known torture is a common technique used by interrogators.

Inside the White House, a man who would eventually become the country’s chief lawmaker found justification for defying the Geneva Conventions.

In the atmosphere of legal permissiveness that has attended the ill-defined war on terror, the United States has allowed the CIA to confine people in secret prisons around the globe and at home maintains the right to hold prisoners without charges, without trial, and without resort to counsel.

Those who herald two weeks of hopeful news in the Middle East as vindication of policies that attack the very essence of America’s existence are shortsighted at best.

Robert Bolt, in his play A Man for All Seasons, has a highly indignant and moralistic son-in-law Roper challenging Thomas More to ignore the law to get at a higher principle.

“What would you do?” asks More. “Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?”

“I’d cut down every law in England to do that!” answers young Roper.

“And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you -- where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?”

We’ve taken out a great deal of regal old growth in our legal forest to get at the devil in Baghdad. What takes his place, elections aside, is still anyone’s guess. It remains anyone’s guess, too, on where we’ll find protection amid the laws flattened in pursuit of intemperate ambitions and short-term gain.

National Catholic Reporter, March 11, 2005

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