In the course of crapping all over the basic decency and fairness that made America and its constitution the hope of humanity, Justice Antonin Scalia recently penned the most radical, useful words I've read in years.
The rest of us need to catch up with Scalia. Here's how we start.
Go stare at a New Hampshire license plate.
Doesn't matter which one.
Stare long enough and you will eventually notice four capitalized words. One syllable apiece. Succinct. Simple. Yet plenty deep enough for our fearful moment in history.
"LIVE FREE OR DIE."
Right there at the top of the license plate. The state motto. The partial text, I've just learned, of a toast offered in 1809 by New Hampshire's "most distinguished" Revolutionary War hero. The full toast: "Live Free Or Die; Death Is Not The Worst of Evils."
It has been very smart politics since 9/11 to bet that terrorized Americans now do consider death the worst of evils. McCain, Scalia, Gingrich, Giuliani, and others played that smart politics this month when they slammed the Supreme Court for affirming the obvious: that if America is to be America, everyone in U.S. custody -- even terrorism suspects locked in the endless limbo of Guantanamo -- must get the very very very basic legal right known as habeas corpus. Thanks to the court's perilously slim 5-4 ruling, such suspects now get to try -- merely try -- to convince a judge that they are being held unlawfully. That's all. If habeas corpus were some automatic get-out-of-jail card, we wouldn't have more than 2 million people locked up in America's prisons and jails.
Still, we got these kinds of reactions...
GOP presidential nominee McCain:
"one of the worst decisions in history."
Justice Scalia (from his dissent to the decision):
"It will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed."
Ex-House Speaker Gingrich:
"This court decision is a disaster which could cost us a city."
Ex-NYC Mayor and 9/11 reality-TV star Giuliani:
"... the remarks made yesterday by several people in the Obama camp that If Bin Laden were taken to Guantanamo he would be given Habeas Corpus rights is startling. And again, a reminder of maybe where they are going on the Democratic side and what we would have in store for us if we have a Democratic presidency. The reality is that there seems to be more concern about the rights of terrorists, or alleged terrorists, than for the rights that the American people have to safety and security."
Man! These people need to stare at a New Hampshire license plate. Except maybe Scalia. He either fooled me with some deft, empty rhetoric or he actually gets it. Here are the two sentences that follow his shrill "cause more Americans to be killed" claim:
"That consequence would be tolerable if necessary to preserve a time-honored legal principle vital to our constitutional Republic. But it is this Court's blatant abandonment of such a principle that produces the decision today."
Did you catch that?
More Americans being killed "would be tolerable if necessary to preserve a time-honored legal principle vital to our constitutional Republic."
"Tolerable" is a bit of a callous word. Rather, Spock-like. But what Scalia wrote is a beacon. It's the beacon we needed before we passed the Patriot Act. It's the beacon we need to stop warrantless wiretapping. It's the beacon that should have been shining into the lawless torture cells of Abu Ghraib prison. It is, in essence, the beacon for us to seek out every time we need to find the courage to affirm to ourselves and signal to the world that America is a principled, brave country that honors its founding ideals even in frightening times.
Scalia, whether his rulings jibe with it or not, is agreeing with that unprinted second half of New Hampshire's license-plate slogan: "Death is not the worst of evils."
Which is good news. Because we're all going to die. I will. You will. Our kids will. Our grandkids, too. And on and on with an inevitability that is ghastly to contemplate.
But it is possible to cling to life with such irrational fervor that we demolish everything that makes life worth living. This is especially true for us as Americans. We can risk being murdered before our next birthday as proud citizens of a country that stands for something. Or we can slog into inconsequential old age as cowering, hunted inhabitants of some putrid corpse of what America once was.
The McCains and Giulianis of American politics are leading us toward that putrid corpse, toward surrender.
The Bush years, since 9/11, have been a series of retreats. As sure as if al Qaeda had conquered Texas, America is occupied territory today. We have retreated again and again from the Constitution and the ideals that inspired it. In the interest of saving America from bin Laden, we have shown a terrifying willingness to strip away more and more of the founding virtues that make America worth saving in the first place.
No viable candidate for president -- not even Senator Obama, who himself got savaged for defending the Supreme Court's habeas corpus ruling -- is likely to demand that you to do what it takes to truly pull America out of the downward spiral away from the ideals of its founding fathers. Obama's not going to ask you to stare at New Hampshire's license plate. He's not going to ask you to think or pray or meditate or weep or smash your fists into a punching bag until you figure out what "LIVE FREE" actually means to you, until you decide what, if not death, actually is "the worst of evils."
So you need to demand all this of yourself. You need to decide which American values you'd be willing to die for.
Not our troops.
Or if "willing to die for" sounds uncomfortably close to the fanatical level of commitment of our terrorist foes, you need at least to decide which retreats from American values you are not willing to live with.
This is an open-book test. Read the Declaration of Independence. Read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Read Founding Brothers. Read John Adams. Hell, watch the HBO miniseries version. Read 1984. Read the recent Martin Amis novel about life in Stalin's Soviet police state. Recite the Pledge of Allegiance, lingering on that phrase "with liberty and justice for all."
Once you've figured out your own bottom line, talk to friends and family about it. Write it down. Send what you write to your members of Congress, your governor, your mayor, the presidential nominees.
Unless and until we tell them otherwise, our elected officials will continue to govern as if we're spineless.
I'm betting we're not unprincipled cowards. I'm betting we're not so scared of death that we're willing to ruin our country. I'm betting that, if we all stop to really think about it, we will realize that steadfastly embracing America's founding values will do more than anything else to win over the indifferent bystanders around the world who permit terrorists to hide, plot, train, recruit, and metastasize.