Last night I walked the streets of lower Manhattan to the sounds of an artillery barrage on the Hudson River. Muffled booms rolled through empty neighborhoods and smoky flashes lit up the sky between the dark buildings. Five barges sat in mid-river and launched a spectacular pyrotechnics display. The proximity of American patriotism to our instinct for bellicosity is nothing new. We’ve always had a soft spot for marching warriors and explosions in the sky when we honor our country and I personally am a rabid fireworks fan. But in the midst of the eye-popping cloudbursts and sparkling veils and the gut-rumbling blasts, my mind jumped momentarily to the real bombs and missiles that continue to zoom around the world in our collective name.
These troubling mental intrusions came on strong this year. Citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan are on their sixth and ninth years, respectively, of U.S. sponsored fireworks, and America’s terroristic enemies continue to scheme and concoct devilish displays of their own. From North Korea’s feeble missile lobbing experiments to Al-Qaeda’s supposed plotting for a nuclear attack, there is no shortage of threats, credible or not. Perhaps patriotic sentiments are never as easy or pure as we are told, but I wish I could enjoy the memory of our independence with a little less war-guilt or terror-fear, which seem to be the two poles of U.S. foreign policy.
As I stood watching the celebration, I was reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. He wrote:
The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will. They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will.
65 years later, these achetypes have changed little. While President Obama proclaims the goal of a nuclear free world, Richard Perle sticks by the advice he once gave to Reagan:
“Nuclear weapons are here to stay. You can’t uninvent them. A world without nuclear weapons isn’t credible and I wouldn’t want it even if we could.”
Perle’s view is terribly frightening to me but to dismiss it as lunacy would be to deny the serious traction it has in the defense policy community. Can we reconcile the children of dark and lightness? Can we safeguard our homeland without trampling those around us? Is it possible to untangle our national character from our longstanding militancy without weakening our collective sense of self?