The gist of Tom Wright’s rebuke, like that of Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, is simple enough. It might be put this way. Obama’s decision to bring Osama bin Laden to justice by assassinating him in front of his family amounts to a repudiation of everything Obama was supposed to stand for: an end to the prosecution of war outside of judicial constraints, and an end to the notion that the United States stands above the law as one assumes the Geneva Conventions stipulate.
I imagine that Wright is equally incensed at the prosecution of the war in Libya by Britain, France, and the United States. Or not: in that ongoing case, at least the countries attempting to bomb Gheddafi into submission - now, perhaps, to kill him outright - went through the motions of obtaining a piece of paper from the UN behind which they can hide.
It doesn’t much matter whether the left, the right, or the center engages in war. War by definition is a form of madness. Any attempt to force its prosecution into some sort of legal straightjacket is doomed to failure. True, one might counter that it would have been better to put Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on trial, Nuremburg-style, rather than assassinate them, Obama-style, or waterboard them, Cheney-style. Maybe so, but I wouldn’t bet on it. There are unintended consequences to every even-handed act in a contest with those who are far from vanquished and will stop at nothing to do us harm. The Nuremburg trials were possible because those on trial had been utterly defeated. Such is not the case with those who wish to kill us still.
War is about vengeance. It is moved by people who know in some sense that “vengeance is mine, saith the Lord” - and who choose to become God’s executioners.
I have one piece of friendly advice for Wright, whom I respect for the simple reason that he criticizes Obama in the first place – in so doing, Wright defies the law of gravity of partisan politics, which is: never rag on your own.
The best way to take on American exceptionalism is not to deny its truth, but to hold Americans accountable to the truth as they understand it. The word reported to have been given to a prophet of Israel comes to mind (Amos 3:1-2):
שִׁמְעוּ אֶת־הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה עֲלֵיכֶם
בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עַל כָּל־הַמִּשְׁפָּחָה
אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלֵיתִי מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר
רַק אֶתְכֶם יָדַעְתִּי מִכֹּל מִשְׁפְּחוֹת הָאֲדָמָה
עַל־כֵּן אֶפְקֹד עֲלֵיכֶם אֵת כָּל־עֲוֺנֹתֵיכֶם
Hear this decision, what יהוה determined in your regard,
O Israelites, in regard to the whole family
I brought up from the land of Egypt, to wit:
You alone I singled out of all the families of the earth.
That is why I will saddle you with all your iniquities.
One can only hope, in our august age, that God will raise up a Vergil in our midst, to write as he did:
arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam fato profugus Laviniaque venit
litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
vi superum, saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram,
multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem
inferretque deos Latio; genus unde
Albanique patres atque altae moenia Romae.
Musa, mihi causas memora, quo . . . ?
Arms and a man I sing, the first from Troy,
A fated exile to Lavinian shores
In Italy. On land and sea, divine will –
And Juno’s unforgetting rage – harassed him.
War racked him too, until he set his city
And gods in Latium. There his Latin race rose,
With Alban patriarchs, and Rome’s high walls.
Muse, tell me why.
That is Sarah Ruden's superb translation. Go here for a short introduction to Vergil and Ruden’s translation.
“Until he set his city and gods” . . . in new England. Tell me why.
Wright’s rebuke of Barack Obama stings just a little, but the rebuke of Sarah Ruden, though not directed at POTUS, goes all the way to the bone:
Working with the Aeneid did me a lot of good. I used to bear a cheap pacifist witness that is fairly typical — though not, I hasten to add, as typical among the Quakers and Mennonites with whom I hang out, and who should have been able to teach me better. But it took Virgil to persuade me that everything costs. If I want to be against war, I can’t just shoot off my mouth about it. I have to pay, as I do now: live in a small furnished apartment with a roommate, not own an appliance bigger than a humidifier that fits on a bookshelf, not even try to get a driver’s license but let roller-blades be my only thrill from wheels, not get married except to someone who’ll let me continue this sort of testimony.
Brand-new, politically correct literature is supposed to be liberating and empowering, but it’s the classics that allow someone marginal like me — a woman in a tiny religious sect, who spent ten years in Africa — to understand mainstream culture and take part in it, and to have a chance of influencing it in turn.
For more, go here.