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Carla Seaquist Headshot

Distinguishing Between Can and Should: What a Superpower Should Be Able to Do

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President Obama introduced a novel concept into American discourse recently when he distinguished between what America can and should do when it comes to national security surveillance.

But this important, possibly nation-saving concept---about what the American superpower can and should do---relates not only to surveillance. It relates to other policy areas too, and to our culture generally.

Mr. Obama raised the concept in a speech he gave in January, in the aftermath of revelations about the excesses of the National Security Agency in its spying abroad and at home. Narrow in focus, his speech addressed the technical capability of the agency's tools and the questions such capability raises in the new digital age:

"....America's capabilities are unique, and the power of new technologies means that there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do. That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do."

While Mr. Obama has been more pushed than leading a public debate on surveillance, in his lawyerly way he states the general problem precisely: the vital need to recognize the distinction to be made between can (capability) and should (ethics). Moreover, he acknowledges that as the world's superpower, America has a "special obligation" to make that distinction, to ask the "tough questions."

So, let's ask the tough questions.

Drones. Surveillance is only one policy area to be weighed in these terms. Drones are another: It's late in the process to ask, given America's growing drone fleet, but should we be engaging? Apart from the ethics of killing by remote control, there's the problem of the U.S. violating international law by launching attacks in countries with which we are not formally at war. Even on capability (can) grounds, such warfare is dubious, when drones can be purchased off the Internet and weaponized for just hundreds of dollars---a capability within reach of any country on earth.

War and torture. As for waging war, the U.S. has been shamefully negligent of the ethics of the "just war" tradition, as contrasted to the just war of World War II.

Such ethics justified our war in Afghanistan, waged in response to the 9/11 attacks fomented there (though the American public is rightly exhausted with its length). But the same cannot be said of Iraq, a war not of necessity but choice (the choice to get rid of Saddam Hussein). That war should have been called off when U.N. inspectors could not find Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps our lowest ethical point was revealed at Abu Ghraib: You can call what went on there "enhanced interrogation," if you need to weasel the ethics of it, but it was torture, a war crime.

And Vietnam: Even with the fullness of time, there's still no compelling "should" to that war. It was the "can" that drove us: We could rain death, and we did. It was only when the American public got out in the streets, making the ethical argument against that war, that it ended. What a tragedy that that lesson---the need for an airtight, ethical premise for war, rather than mere capability---hasn't taken hold in our decision-making councils.

Wall Street. Likewise in the financial and economic realms, where the U.S. still looms large, what a tragedy the "should" questions haven't even been raised, much less taken hold.

Wall Street banks, rescued by the taxpayer from the '08 crash they caused because they were "too big to fail," are bigger than ever, with their risk-taking by no means reined in. Yes, the Dodd-Frank law imposes some restrictions (banks must increase their capital position, as backstop), but speculation continues without brake, e.g., JPMorgan Chase's recent "London whale" fiasco. But rather than reform, banks simply pay the fine, as a cost of doing business, and continue to play fast and loose. And now we learn the stock market is rigged, thanks to Michael Lewis' revelations of "flash" traders seeking an unethical millisecond advantage over their competition.

Sadly, a George Washington visionary who could raise the capability-versus-ethics questions has not yet emerged from Wall Street, a figure with standing who'd point out elementary things like: Yes, we can give our "talent" outsize bonuses, but given their questionable track record, should we? Yes, we can rock the world's boat with our risk-taking, but should we, because if we crash the world economy a second time, proving no lessons were learned since the '08 crash, there will be---and should be---no forgiveness from the world.

Corporate sector. Nor has such visionary figure emerged in the corporate sector, to question, for one thing, the growing income inequality: At present, the average ratio of CEO pay to worker's pay is 204 to 1, with many instances of far wider ratios. Nations fail, as history shows, because of these "extractive elites." Where are these elites honest enough to pose the self-jeopardizing question, Yes, we can extract, but should we?

On the contrary, what's emerging in corporate suites and on Wall Street are voices whining at being impugned as the 1%, with one such voice comparing their "plight" to the Nazis' attack on the Jews on Kristallnacht and making the preposterous case that, because of their wealth, the 1% should be able to cast more votes in elections than regular citizens. Again, where's the visionary to defend democracy against turbo-capitalism's onslaughts? Or brave enough to act on French economist Thomas Piketty's best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which finds that, if radical income inequality continues, both the economy and democracy are jeopardized?

Environment. Likewise, the environment and climate change are realms where "can" and "should" questions need to be asked. The environmental movement has its notable successes, with clean air and water laws, among others. But it's all for naught if the corporate sector continues to pollute the planet's atmosphere that sustains all human life.

Culture. Of course, a society's ability to ask the "can" and "should" questions---its capability for ethics, as it were---emanates from its people's character, its values, its culture.

American culture for much of its history adhered to a code of behavior defining right and wrong, promoted by the family and community, the church, governmental institutions, and social mores. This code was stultifying to some, and, yes, there was much hypocrisy in its adherence, but the code applied. Even in the Wild West, where it took a while for the code to be established, the outlaw was scorned and the lawman was protector.

But that code does not exist anymore, for reasons so various it would take a book to describe. Now the outlaw, the bad boy, is the hero (or antihero), and the character posing the moral question is the fool. At least that's how pop culture, fizziest realm of the general culture, plays it, cheered on by critics, our cultural gatekeepers. See TV's "hot" series (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, House of Cards), movies (The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle), video games, pop music, advertising. See moronic celebs, outdoing each other's excesses. Violent and sexualized, pop culture is in mad pursuit of "edge" and the extreme---testing, testing its capability: How far can it go? "Should" questions would ruin the party.

Why does this matter? Because the superpower's pop culture invades---some say infects---the world, purporting to represent what freedom looks like and how the people who enjoy it behave. (Twenty years ago, when Communism was still a fresh memory and freedom was new, I was walking in Prague's Wenceslas Square with a Czech friend when a movie marquee loomed before us announcing another in the violent Lethal Weapon franchise. My friend made a face, and I had to say, "Sorry about that.")

Yet the anything-goes spirit of pop culture is shared by great swaths of the American public. From the boomers onward, it has become bad form to be "judgmental" about anything; those who do chance a judgment are scorned as "self-righteous." We bang the drum loudly and incessantly for our rights, but responsibilities? Not so much. It's all about our First Amendment free speech rights, far less about our responsibilities.

Even after the painful humbling of 9/11 and the '08 financial crash, "can" continues to trump "should." In a superpower which, despite many new challengers, still leads the world in key spheres---financial, political, military---this attitude is, to say the least, immature. It's also dangerous: U.S. actions undertaken because of mere capability---drone warfare, the Iraq war, torture, Wall Street's globe-busting risk-taking---have, no surprise really, made us less secure and less trusted by the world.

Hope lies with the other large swath of American society, what I call the conscientious public, who, being conscientious, by definition do distinguish between can and should, between capability and ethics. Who recognize the signs of America's decline and are working mightily to reverse our course; who understand history and wish this singular country to be on the right side of it. Like my neighbor who, as the drumbeat for war in Iraq grew louder and louder, said, "Sure, we could bomb Iraq, but should we?" and who, after our "shock-and-awe" bombardment of Baghdad, said, "I hung my head and wept"---and who then wrote another letter to the editor protesting the war, the new one underway.

This public, the conscientious one, deserves conscientious political representatives---of which there are far too few.

President Obama, who made the key distinction between can and should as it relates to surveillance, can and should relate it to other issues, notably the glaring problem of income inequality, which he's already said is "the defining challenge of our time." Go ahead, Mr. Obama: Make an ethical-moral challenge of it. Politically, you've been pinned to the mat, but on the ethics of many issues---income inequality, minimum wage, the right to healthcare, in fact your opposition's entire program to fortify the rich and keep the 99% unhealthy, undereducated, and poor---there is plenty of room, uncharted territory even, to fight. Others in your party might join in.

Reintroducing the ethical into politics, once sounded by Franklin Roosevelt on wealth and Lyndon Johnson on civil rights, could revitalize a conscientious public that's fallen into the Slough of Despond. Talking generally about the rightness and wrongness of things might even make a crack in the polarized divide between the parties. For example, Democrats and Republicans can both agree that greed is not good. Holding to that ethical agreement, we might begin to attack income inequality (and refute a "truth" of pop culture, Gordon Gekko's assurance that "Greed is good").

In his essay titled "Politics" published in 1844, the great Transcendental philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson posed a test applying to all nations at all times when he asked:

"Are our methods now so excellent that all competition is hopeless? Could not a nation...devise better ways?" (italics mine).

Yes we can: The world's superpower could devise better ways---by considering the ethical import of our actions, not just our capabilities. To save ourselves, and set an example for the world, we must. Will we? Can we?

Carla Seaquist's forthcoming book of commentary is titled "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." Another book of commentary, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character," came out in 2009. Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."