11/05/2012 09:27 am ET Updated Jan 05, 2013

Ballots, Not Bullets

When I was the editor of my high school newspaper, I interviewed our principal, Mr. Fliegner, whose life led an interesting path starting as a "child soldier" in the Hitler Youth pressed to defend Berlin, then -- after a similar indoctrination into the Young Pioneers of the Communist Party -- escaping into West Germany, emigrating to the United States, and then drafted into the U.S. army in the early '60s. In his answer to a question on various forms of freedom of expression, Mr. Fliegner warned: "Freedom is not license. With each and every right comes an equal and concomitant responsibility. And when you fail to assume those responsibilities, sooner or later you will also forfeit your rights."

"Few people in Germany were true Nazis," he also told me, "but many enjoyed the return of German pride and prosperity, and many more were too busy to care. My parents were among those who thought the Nazis were a bunch of fools. So the majority just sat back and let it all happen. Before we knew it, they owned us, and we had lost control, and the end of our world came."

Since then, I've often found his admonition instructive when, either as a soldier or a civilian peacemaker, helping other countries address this core democratic challenge. In Africa, the choice is starkly existential -- "ballots, not bullets" say the placards. The idea of choosing civil discourse to resolve collective issues rather than conflict and violence is taken for granted in America. While we hear, time and again, countless stories of those who risk -- and sometimes lose -- their lives in the attempt to gain or exercise the most basic of rights, our voter participation rates remain among the worst in the developed world.

Some have argued that it has been a sign of our success and remarkable stability, noting that division in American politics is actually a constant, and that these differences often go about as deep as choosing between Coke and Pepsi -- at least when seen from a non-American perspective. In 26 U.S. presidential elections, the winner received less than 52 percent of the vote. The other constant, of course, is that about half don't even show up to vote, not necessarily because of cynicism or alienation from the political process but because "that segment of the public simply doesn't care much about the outcome."

Although all of this self-reassurance has some merit, we have also taken our civic responsibilities for granted because we could afford our indifference. We can no longer blithely dismiss that what happens in Washington, let alone the rest of the world, has little to do with our personal lives. We stand at a crossroads as significant as any other. While the elections may not be decisive as to which road we take, they mark a renewal of our never-ending national dialogue about what it means to be an American and what that should mean for the rest of the world.

Those who use history to reassure us should also consider this: Since the War of 1812, Americans did not have to care much about the rest of the world -- we could afford "splendid isolationism." Since the Civil War, the U.S. looked to win its wars, deter its adversaries, and assure its allies through overwhelming industrial and technological superiority predicated on an abundance of cheap resources, cheap labor, cheap energy, and cheap capital -- we could afford a surplus mentality. And from 1945 until now, the U.S. has been the dominant world power -- we could afford unilateralism, cling to our own exceptionalist view of national sovereignty, and "lead" in a more domineering way while everyone else was internationalizing.

That is all changing with this generation. As the hyperconnected world we have created closes in on that splendid isolationism, and the peace and security of the rest of the world is increasingly intertwined with our own, our pocketbooks are also growing thinner, all further limiting our future choices and forcing us to think more strategically -- with the longer run and bigger picture in mind. Hence the greater demand for "substance" in our politics. Moreover, the times we are entering are calling for a re-defined sense of citizenship -- one that connects community and country to the world beyond as we attempt to deal with the storms and stresses that affect each of us and necessitate all of us.

Besides being a society predicated on surplus and waste, ours is a republic of largely commercial values. We have tended to treat most things as a commodities - including, as of late, campaign contributions as a form of freedom of speech. Rights like voting, however, are not commodities that, once lost, can be regained like a stock market loss -- unless we dare ignore Mr. Fliegner's advice and risk losing what we have so long assumed a given in our national equation.

You've heard many of the arguments: if you don't vote, you have no right to complain -- you're part of the problem and not part of the solution; when you only get half the electorate to show up, then you get the government you deserve; not voting is also a choice -- silence is approval, leaving it up to others to decide the issues; Wall Street and K Street run things in Washington because Main Street has opted out; and, when we are derelict in our electoral duty, we dishonor those who, at this very moment, put their lives on the line to protect both our rights and responsibilities.

No matter whom we vote for, the simple act of casting a ballot more than sends a statement beyond favor or protest. National service isn't just for those in uniforms, and performing the most fundamental of civic duties underwrites and reaffirms our democratic values as well as democracy itself. No doubt, if we want responsible governance, we need to provide responsible citizenship; but, if we want to lead the world, we must do so first and foremost by example, lest we lose our credibility because we can't walk the talk. At a time when "over there matters over here," peace, prosperity, and national security begin at home, with an engaged and educated (more than an armed) citizenry.

Here as well as there: Ballots, not bullets are what makes and keeps people free.