Today we remember the terrible morning of the planes and the towers. We remember where we were and whom we talked with, what was said, what was felt and with wisdom, what has come of all that. Perhaps we watched the misguided "Path to 9/11" last night, or perhaps as I did with my son, we watched the Ted Koppel's Discovery Channel program of a live debate with some of the decision makers and the families of the victims.
At a point in that program, a man who was a co-author of the Patriot Act stepped forward to say that President Bush has wisely used power not granted under US law and when challenged, has demanded that Congress give him such power. The man said that this was right, that the commander-in-chief should always be given such power under such circumstances. The Republicans in the group could be heard saying "Strong! Very strong." I commented to my son that this was the 'Strong Man' argument often heard in such historical crises. I told him that such cries have led to three strong men being granted unprecedented power, in recent memory, Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini, but also in historical memory, George Washington.
I asked him what the difference among these men was. He said immediately, the first two wanted the power and Washington didn't because he knew it was wrong. I asked him if there were other differences and we talked about that.
We surmised that Washington not only knew it was wrong, he understood that he had the time to work by other means. While Hitler and Mussolini gained that power citing external existential threats just as we hear from the Republican Party today, Washington knew the external threats were an ocean away and in that time, it may as well have been the Moon because though it was possible to be threatened, that threat took enormous resources to make good. Today, that threat can be within our borders in hours, but that does not change the nature of the difference among these men who were granted great power in a time of crisis. The difference though is still the immediate and strongest threat, as the Republicans say, the existential threat.
Washington saw a different existential threat: the threat from within.
Though the British would come back, Washington, as military leader knew it would take time and if during that time, the young nation destroyed itself from within with bickering and competition between the States and the powers of the central government, if the military did not yield to the Congress and the will of the people, if we became a nation of power but not law out of fear of each other, then everything the Revolutionaries had fought for would be lost, and deservedly lost. So Washington used his power to build the nation, to prepare the nation and when the British did return as he knew they would, the leaders of the nation and the nation itself could withstand the losses and repel the invasion. America became a great nation by working within the law thus enabling the law to be the dissolver of fear from without and more importantly, fear from within.
As we approach the midterms, we will be exercising the right passed down from Washington's generation, the right to choose our leaders and not to inherit them or be inherited by them. As we make that choice, look to the men and women who as Washington did, respect and are bound by the law, and are not proclaiming themselves to be the law. For only as we make that choice wisely will be preserve the good that has made of us a great nation respected throughout the world and feared by the enemies of goodness; a nation of laws and not of men.
As one gentleman quoted during the program from deToqueville, "America is great because America is good. When America is no longer good, it will no longer be great."