March 05, 2006

A Time for Civil Courage

"The message to be heard is: This is a situation that justifies risking your career and your associations and your freedom and your life. It justifies the kind of courageous action that we are asking of every person in Iraq every hour of the day and night. […]

It's time for people in this country, civilians, to start looking into themselves for the ability to be brave like [our soldiers]. And not physically, but to have what the Germans term "civil courage." Bismarck said at one point, courage on the battlefield is not rare, but civil courage is rare. We need that concept over here. People talk of moral courage but it's rarely defined what that means exactly.

Civil courage means standing up for principle in the face of the state, risking career, risking the good opinion of other people for the good of the community and the society."

Daniel Ellsberg

Recently SusanG interviewed Daniel Ellsberg for They talked extensively about the leaks with which the Bush White House has been dealing: leaks such as the publishing of the John Yoo Torture memo and the report last winter that Bush was spying on Americans in violation of the law. Both of these leaks clearly show that Bush believes he is above the law. Ellsberg reflected on what it was like when he leaked the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, and how frightening it was to make the decision to leak the papers and to stand against the government. Yet, he knew it was the right thing to do. He said that our country is experiencing another great crisis like during the Vietnam era and it is critical that people who are able to stop the catastrophic actions of our government step up to that challenge.

On January 17th, the country celebrated the Martin Luther King’s Day holiday. We celebrate that day because Martin Luther King was someone who showed real civil courage. He created significant change in our world despite the danger he and his family faced due to his activism. We know that King was aware of how dangerous his speaking up was because he told us that in one of his last speeches. Nevertheless, he felt that it was his duty to continue to speak out, to inspire, to educate and to be an agent for change.

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop and I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will, and He's allowed me to go up to the mountain.

And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

When historians write about the Bush era, they will note that there were a number of people that stepped up to warn about the danger to our Constitution and our country. Yet, they will also ask: why did others who could have done more stay silent?

Today one legacy of the Bush administration is there are many examples of people who have risked their livelihoods and their reputations to warn that our country was in great danger of doing enormous damage to our own values while creating a much more dangerous world for ourselves and our descendents.

Courageous patriots are found in many parts of our government. Before the start of the Iraq war, State Department officials such as John Brady Kiesling resigned and publicly protested that we were embarking on a policy of preventive war which is illegal by the terms of the Geneva Conventions, a treaty that the US was not only a signatory, but a principle sponsor.

Soldiers have also found the courage to speak out. What we know about the torture practices the Bush administration has been using is because brave and honorable people have brought forth information about what they know to reporters. These whistleblowers are truly to be honored for their courage.

At the end of January we learned that some in the Justice Department fought against the overreach of those who declared that the president could decide by himself what the law was and operate without any oversight from the courts or the Congress. We have come to know the name of Jack Goldsmith who showed he loved his country and its Constitution more than he feared losing his job. As a former assistant district attorney, he demonstrated that he believed the clause “no man is above the law” is one of the main principles of our Constitution and he could not do his duty to the Constitution if he did not protest the violation of the FISA law. After all, the Congress had explicitly passed this law as part of its oversight responsibility and the President cannot arbitrarily abrogate it on his own.

Yet, others who could have done more have not done so. Bush declares what he is doing is legal because he has informed the appropriate members of Congress. But we know that some in the Congress felt that they had been put into an untenable spot because they could not do due diligence on the information they had gotten without violating the secrecy laws. Indeed, Senator Jay Rockefeller sent a handwritten note to the Vice President expressing deep concerns about the program he had been told about. Yet, despite his misgivings, Senator Rockefeller did not expose the program publicly because he felt bound by the secrecy laws.

One wonders could this Constitutional crisis have been adverted if our Senators had decided that their obligation to the country and the Constitution overrode the onerous secrecy laws? After all, the Bush administration has cloaked so many of their actions under the rubric of secrecy and national security. If those who are legally obligated to represent the people cannot do so because they feel checked by the administration, then who is standing up for the country? When are the actions of the administration so egregious that our Senators realize it is worth their careers, their lives and, indeed, their reputations to take a public stand on these issues? After all, they too took an oath to “protect and defend” the Constitution and that means acting vigorously to monitor the executive branch that they do not overstep their bounds.

It is well and good to ask why our representatives are not doing more. But we citizens have to recognize that we too must do our part. If we want to promote civil courage, then we must demand an accounting and back those who come forth when they put their careers and lives on the line. After all, our country and our Constitution are important enough to demand this type of courage.

[Ed: this is another of my articles which was first published in the February 2006 issue of the Vox Populi Nebraska eZine.]

Posted by Mary at March 5, 2006 03:01 PM | Philosophy | Technorati links |


Thanks for articulating a vital point which is often drowned out by the volume of rhetoric.

I read the Ellsberg series, and was struck by the human face it put on the civil courage you refer to. We can transcend our ordinary limitations when the need is great.

Posted by: cloudsplitter at March 5, 2006 05:47 PM

Dear Mary,

The human race needs to escape the left-right- Democrat-Republican paridigm trap.

I have been severely persecuted here in the United States Pacific Coast with no end in site.
I have just fired off a complaint against Walmart and posted such on the blog listed.

The United States is a manifest Perfect Dictaorship. It is the Lesser of Two Evils and you get to vote for a Dictator of a two party system that will openly expose that it is corrupt and the people will clamour for tyranny.



Posted by: David Nollmeyer at March 5, 2006 07:04 PM

We are what both our bodies and MINDS are feed. The mind is being feed pure bull by those who claim to represent God. Their status as the morality gurus is due to take a big hit. A little sensational but true never the less. Check it out and see for yourself. It's out minds they want to control and they are doing it with a hoax.

Posted by: Bill at March 6, 2006 05:08 PM