Civil Liberties

The Dark Side of War-Inspired Civic Virtue


Does the scary new world in which we live today -- a world in which at least 5,000 people are dead in terrorist attacks, the US Postal Service has been turned into a system for the delivery of deadly bacteria, and we are at war with a shadow enemy who could strike at any time -- have a silver lining? Can it help us become a better people? There are indeed those who think so.

The crisis "can make real to us and our children the value of deeper community connections," writes Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University and author of "Bowling Alone," in a New York Times article titled "A Better Society in a Time of War."

Invoking World War II as a parallel, Putnam points out that war often fosters solidarity, civic virtue and a loftier public spirit. Indeed, there is some evidence of that today. After decades of hyphenation, being simply an American is "in" again, now that we're all under attack, all in the same boat. There has been a tremendous outpouring of generosity, with people donating time, money, and blood to help the victims and their families. On the front pages and on the airwaves, frivolous news stories we felt vaguely embarrassed about following - the Gary Condit scandal comes to mind - have been replaced by far weightier and more dignified matters.

There is no doubt that the heroism and goodness we have seen in this past month and a half have been inspiring (though, surely, even before Sept. 11, there was plenty of everyday heroism and goodness in America that never came to our attention simply because it wasn't part of the biggest story of our time). Clearly, hardship often does bring out the best in people. And yet the talk of national tragedy as a catalyst for civic betterment has a dark and disturbing underside.

For one, it appears that some communitarians and liberals are so put off by the individualism, materialism, and frivolity they see around them in times of prosperity and safety that they come perilously close to welcoming bad times. Sure, finding some sliver of good in a tragedy is a way to lift morale, but celebrating the character-building aspects of a horrific disaster can also turn a little ghoulish.

War-inspired civic virtue also has its less attractive side. For one, what brings us together is not just love of our country but hatred and fear of the enemy. This is not to say that our hatred and fear are unjustified, only that this may not be the best and noblest foundation for patriotism. Besides, one person's collective spirit is another's groupthink. Putnam approvingly cites a comment quoted in an oral history of World War II: "You just felt that the stranger sitting next to you . . . felt the same way you did about the basic issues."

Could it be that what we gain in shared values, we may lose in pluralism and healthy dissent?

What's more, Putnam and others who echo his argument are not merely applauding the noble acts of millions of ordinary Americans; they also find solace in the idea that war and national tragedy will bolster support for an activist state.

"The most selfless civic duties," Putnam asserts, "cannot be performed without government help."

In The American Prospect, Jeff Faux, president of the Economic Policy Institute, waxes enthusiastic over the pro-government lessons allegedly to be learned from Sept. 11 - "how ill served we have been by a politics that perpetuates the illusion that we are all on our own and holds the institutions of public service in contempt."

There is nothing new about this rhetoric. The antimilitarist instincts of the left have long coexisted - uneasily, one would imagine - with nostalgia for the public spirit generated by a just war.

Historically in the United States, wars have indeed been a catalyst for the growth of government, though many would argue that the changes have not been for the better. Liberals should remember that the expansion of state powers tends to affect not only economic regulations but personal freedoms. In a national emergency, some abridgments of civil liberties may be an unfortunate necessity; but will we ever recover the lost ground?

The civic virtues hailed by the communitarians are important. But there is also something precious about the vision of a good society in which individuals are free to live on their own, pursuing happiness as they choose. If that vision is lost, it will be another sad casualty of the terrorist attack on America.