According to the editors of the New York Times, “Americans who did not vote for the man who’s being sworn in” are “called upon to acknowledge the chief executive, and at least come to terms with the process that got him there.” Apparently, then, even President Bush’s opponents are supposed to kick back, confident in the fact that his continued occupation of the White House is the result of a free and fair election, which in turn betokens “the basic principles that unite our country,” in the words of the editors. Yet relaxation comes hard for those who worry about election fraud in (e.g.) Ohio, Bush’s opponent’s milksop campaign (which included $15 million in unspent campaign funds), and the corporation-financed election that had both major candidates toeing the big-business- and Israel-friendly neoliberal line. If these are the basic principles that unite our country, one will have to forgive the restiveness that some of us find in our soulsï¿½yes, even on inauguration day.
Bush’s speech featured a number of rhetorical devices and turns of phrase that would rightly have irked his opponents. For instance, after conjuring images of the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of blacks and women, Bush proclaimed that universal suffrage “is the honorable achievement of our fathers.” Were not women involved withï¿½indeed at the front ofï¿½these struggles? And what, exactly, is the nature of that “untamed” fire of freedom that “burns” those who fight against it? Should not the “force of freedom” have a steady, even hand, more reminiscent of a lion tamer than the beast he tries to break? And does Bush really want to pretend that while Americans are “tested” they are “not weary” from the tribulations of the “war on terror”? The claim to perpetual vigor and vibrancy might strike Army Reserve’s top general, Lt. Gen. James “Ron” Helmly, as odd, given his declaration that the Army Reserves–constituting 40 percent of the forces in Iraq–is fast becoming a “broken force”.
But Bush’s speech contained more that was dangerous than even these justified complaints capture. It was a speech outlining the tenets of a biblical mission, undertaken by an Emperor who’s own sense of destiny absolves him of the need to consider the consequencesï¿½even the consequences for liberty itselfï¿½of his policies.
According to Mr. Bush’s worldview, there is no need to answer for actions done in the name of liberty. ï¿½We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation. The moral choice [is] between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.ï¿½ This perspective has been eminently evident with regard to Iraq. The President frequently reminds journalists and opponents that ï¿½Saddam had a choice to make…ï¿½ Once Saddam made the wrong choice, he alone is responsible for the consequences of the actions of those who, in the words of the speech, ï¿½do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny.ï¿½
While this way of thinking seems to weigh with many Americans when the topic is foreign policy, it rightly generates second-thoughts if applied to familiar situations at home. Imagine a bank-robber that has taken thirty people hostage as the result of a failed heist. The gunman’s ï¿½moral choiceï¿½ is of course clear: he is in the wrong, and should give himself up and free his hostages. But what does being ï¿½on the side of goodï¿½ mean for the conduct of the police, who’ve got the bank surrounded? Do they storm the place, not knowing how the gunman will react, or even how their own actions in the face of uncertainty will affect the innocent lives involved? Or do they temper their trigger fingers out of respect for the risk that their actions will do more harm than good? Police officers receive daily reminders that being on the side of good answers few practical questions.
Given this demonstration of the world’s moral complexity, Mr. Bush’s image of the ï¿½fire of freedomï¿½ was, it turns out, especially apt. For while in Bush’s view the fire of freedom infallibly ï¿½warms those who feel its powerï¿½ and ï¿½burns those who fight its progress,ï¿½ those of us who live in the real world know that playing with fire can be exceedingly harmful, even if it is lit by those with good intentions.
Conservatives often accuse liberals of ignoring reality and the real nature of man. Liberals are guided by their heart, whereas conservatives are guided by their heads. But if there is one thing that Bush’s speech made clear, it is that there is nothing the head could say to Bush that could tame the flame of freedom that burns in his heart: not the fact that the before-and-after pictures of Aceh province resemble the before-and-after pictures of Falluja; not the fact that tens of thousands of Iraqis have lost their lives, and thus their prospect for liberty; not the fact dropping bombs on Mesopotamia and occupying Babylon serve effectively as recruiting posters for those who wish us harm (a point made over and over by policy and military advisers before the war, and finally admittedï¿½begrudginglyï¿½by Bush in the past week).
For my part, the most dangerous passage of the speech was this: ï¿½The rulers of outlaw regimes can know that we still believe as Abraham Lincoln did, ‘Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it.ï¿½ It is dangerous because it connects Bush’s fundamentalist mission with Lincoln’s fight against slavery. It uses Lincoln’s rhetoric to conjure the image of an impetuous God who believes that freedom should not hesitate when it’s ï¿½on the marchï¿½. But consider: what would Americans now think of Bush-style liberation if instead of Lincoln’s waging a civil war, that good Christian Nation, Great Britain, had shocked and awed southern slave-owners (and their families, and their slaves, and their friends, and…) by unleashing its arsenal of cruise missiles and cluster bombs on their manors and plantations? My assumption is that the experience of those alternate-universe Americans would never have tolerated Bush’s ï¿½liberationï¿½ of Iraq, nor his plans to keep freedom on the march.
Despite the New York Times’s editor’s approval of the ï¿½universalï¿½ themes of Bush’s speech, there is much reason to fear its lofty rhetoric and goals. For Bush simply repeated and strengthened his belief that he who is on the side of good does no wrong. If that belief is indeed the motivating factor of ï¿½the great liberating tradition of this nationï¿½ï¿½as it indeed appears to beï¿½then it belongs in the trash bin next to the Times’s editorial.