The Great American Purpose

April 7, 2004

A talk delivered in Denver, Colorado, at a fundraiser for State Representative Suzanne Williams to aid her candidacy for the Colorado State Senate.

There has been a good deal of talk in the last year about the fact that the President of the United States has not yet come to the grave sites of those men and women who have fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan. That failure brings to mind the words of another president who did visit the sites of a great many graves and did speak at a depth which is perhaps only possible in the presence of death.

One hundred and fifty years ago Abraham Lincoln in the face of profound sacrifice spoke of the purposes for which such sacrifice is required. He said

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

…[He said]:

In a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract.

…[Then he said]:

It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work that they have thus far so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us,—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to the cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain, that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom, and that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Now it is a troubled season in America and a time again to ask ourselves what is today the “great task remaining before us” so that those six hundred who have died already and those who are still to die will not have died in vain. Now is a fitting time to ask whether this nation and this world might experience a new birth of freedom and whether we know of a way—in these times—that government of, by, and for the people shall not perish from this earth.

It is as if we were to ask in this time when our civil union is under great stress, when prison is called detention, when invasion is called preemption and deception is called spin what has happened to the American core? Where is integrity and decency and compassion and why was freedom born, and for what great purpose do we still toil?

During the long progress of Western democracy since its earliest beginnings at the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 we in the western world have been engaged —perhaps at first unknowingly—in an evolving effort to see whether and the extent to which conflicts might be resolved without violence. The barons at Runnymede did not come together with King John in 1215 to set the course of western history. Rather, there had been a civil war. They came to stop the bleeding. In laying down principles of feudal restraint, they agreed, did not force, but agreed, that principles of civilized conduct produce a better result than war. Year after year thereafter the Great Charter was renewed as an agreement between English sovereigns and their people. Democracy, that is, did not spring from a love of democracy. Democracy arose from a recognition of the ruinous effects of prolonged violence.

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson did not write that “all men are created equal” as a religious principle only; it was even more a practical political calculation that inequality was one of the great causes of instability and war. Until then, the nobles and kings had thought that their security lay in their exceeding power, in their wealth, in their control of armies and navies. The American revolution was born of the reverse idea: Equality is a better protector against violence than inequality. Violence is therefore more likely reduced when the wealth and power is spread and the elites are minimized. The US Constitution of 1781 states in its preamble that this nation shall be for the “common defense” and the “general welfare” and the structure which was created was intended to establish a balance of powers so as to secure the public peace. Democracy is a formula for conflict resolution without violence.

In our own century we have seen a most remarkable explosion of changes which have come about through non-violence. When I was a soldier in Europe after World War II the governments of France and Italy and Germany and Spain were in constant chaos and we all questioned whether they had the appetite or the mind for democracy. Now 40 years later, democracy in Germany and France is assumed and this very month Spain has demonstrated that it will use democracy to respond to violence. Today, governments all across the former eastern block are experimenting with elections and all the trappings. Today, Latin America is making a gradual transition in the same direction. From 1949 until 15 years ago China was under the rule of unrestrained violence. Today, it is opening up.

These changes are not happening through a revolution of armies. They are happening because of a revolution of consciousness that armies cannot provide, a revolution of consciousness that peaceful, non-violent processes do provide. We are not talking expectations and theory. We are talking the facts of our own immediate past. People do not renounce armed revolution because they love the Magna Carta or Thomas Jefferson, they do so because it is cheaper, safer, and more likely to succeed than governments imposed by force.

In the 1980s, when I was often in and out of Leningrad in the former Soviet Union, people were passing around little newspapers that they had typed up in their living rooms. The government had killed 20 millions of its own. Bolshevism had been imposed totally by violence. In the end, however, the regime could not hold. All that killing was not enough to silence the little circles of equality and moral purpose, the men and women who were passing around their own private newspapers, undermining the Soviet regime. Today the Red Army and the White Army have had their day, they have tried to create a people’s state by wars and brutality and violence. It did not hold. The method contradicted the ends and was doomed to fail. The regime could not hold.

During the course of the 20th century, both the British and Russian empires were brought down without war. The greatest social revolutions in American history, the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movements were brought off in this country without war. How did this happen? It happened because Gandhi and Martin Luther King did what they did, not because they were weak, but because they were strong, because the people as a whole, even without violence are stronger, because moral power is stronger, and because violence has no moral authority and without moral authority it has only temporary power.

I was involved for a number of years in the great civil war between cousin civilizations in Armenia and Azerbaijan. For years I listened to tales of the bombs coming in and the atrocities committed by both sides. Each claimed that the other was guilty of genocide. That war was never negotiated to an end. It is formally not over yet. The president of Azerbaijan every spring threatens to reopen the front and fight on. He does not do it. Why not? Because of a love of peace? I don’t think so. Rather, it is because it is not practical. Because it is too expensive. Because it does not work. Because for seven years of heated battles it did not work. Because talking works better. It is the same reason that the barons of Runnymede sat down with King John in 1215. Because war was not working.

I used to say at the negotiating table: “Well, it is your war. How is it working?” The lights were out; the heat was off. The economies of both countries were a wreck. Neighbors were killing neighbors. It was obvious that the war was not working. They eventually stopped doing it, not because of our negotiations, but because it was not practical and they were tired of it not working.

One time when I was in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1990, I was discussing an issue of ethnic cleansing between Russians and Georgians. After three days of solid talks and determined exchanges a Georgian leader of the popular front said to me, Craig, “All that mediation and reconciliation talk is very good, but what about justice and revenge.”

So the question for them and for us was whether violence increases or decreases justice and revenge. The killings last week in Fallujah were revenge killings probably in return for shootings by the US military of civilian Fallujans last spring. US marines, we are told, will now go in and attempt to clean out Fallujah and will most certainly commit acts which look to the Iraqis like revenge and spawn from Iraqis more desires for more revenge.

That is what King John and the barons at Runnymede 1,000 years ago, learned would not work. That is the approach that was discarded at the birth of the rule of law. And from time to time every one forgets it. That is what some of our own leaders have today forgotten. Because of the tragic misunderstanding that war might work to build consensus and community in Iraq, because of the misunderstanding of our place in world history, because we have not taken the time and trouble to know the practicality whereof we speak when we speak of democracy, now our government is slipping down the slippery slope of unending revenge. Our leaders do not understand the limits of violence or that it is violence itself which democracy is intended to replace.

Enduring peace cannot be made when the ends and the means are not consistent because if they are not consistent someone will feel betrayed and come back to get his pound of flesh. Peace cannot be made when the action is louder and more brutal than the words. It could not be done be done in Chechnya or in Armenia/Azerbaijan and it cannot be done in Iraq. After years of fighting in Armenia/Azerbaijan, black-market trade began to develop between the two countries and then practical people began to exchange information about air pollution and the effects of war trauma on children and the spirit of revenge began to recede. Peace has never been declared but practical people are making it on their own, and all the progress is non-violent.

Think about it. One of the great miracles of non-violence occurred right here in our country, in our own times. An election was stolen in Florida. Some of us might have been tempted to go to war against Florida in 2000. We did not do that, but it was not because we did not passionately care. We did not do that because we know, we Americans, all of us that we would lose more than we would have gained. We did not do that because it would have been unthinkable because of what we know. It would have been unthinkable because so much progress has been made since Runnymede in 1215.

Do not let anyone tell you that because there is confusion at the top of our government, that we are confused to the bone. The fact that we have an impractical president, one who does not count the costs or measure his true strengths, does not mean that he leads an impractical or weak nation. To take offensive military action will never work to change the minds and hearts of the Islamic world. It is too weak a tool. It has not the power of persuasion that tools of the heart have; it does not have the persuasion that health care might have, or that education would have. It does not have the persuasion that can be generated by listening, or trade or a thousand things that we did over the 70 years that we negotiated with the Soviet Union. The Soviet empire came down because it could not block out the ordinary people, Americans and Russians, who worked at the level of the mind and made connections of the heart. Of course we fed information to their little newspapers. Those are the tools of non-violence and the greatest empire of the 20th century was powerless to stand against it.

Tonight, we are once again, as in Lincoln’s time, engaged in a great national struggle to determine whether this nation or any nation so conceived can long endure. If we recognize our true strength and position in the long course of human history we will certainly endure. That is our purpose, to make that clear, those of us who go to political talks on Wednesday nights and cry and weep for America during these dark days.

Our purpose is to remember what it is to be participating in the great democratic experiment which is the extraordinary nonviolent revolution of the last 1,000 years. That is a fair purpose for all Americans. Let us therefore, as Lincoln said, get on with that task that is before us and honor those who have fallen in that cause. Let their be no caving in or letting others define that cause in some meaner, lesser way. We are not in the 1930s. We are not in the 1850s at the Charge of the Light Brigade or allied with the spirit of Genghis Khan in 1200. We have learned a great deal since then. Every year we are learning more and the miracle of the power of the people who are armed with moral concern, with syringes and books with truth and benevolence.

All these powers have been given to us on a golden platter by those who during the course of this 1,000 years trusted that we would learn how to use them. Let us get on with the job.