We are deeply uncertain about being our best as a people and as a nation when being our best entails pain, sacrifice and choosing equal justice over revenge. Our national and individual confusion over what we should do when driven by anger and fear, or when adherence to our principles comes at great cost, means we cannot be trusted to govern our actions alone; when our rage threatens to run amok over our reason we need the boundaries of social mores, a vigorous and free press, and the rule of law to hold us back.
The Geneva Conventions rules regarding the treatment of prisoners of war were meant for such times, written in 1929 by men and women of reason who know that reason might abandon men and women at war, or the interrogators of a terrorist suspect in the heat of the moment before or after another World Trade Center attack.
How do I know we need more than our own instincts to hold us back? Because I know myself. I have seen death many times and almost always hated it. A career in medicine means I have probably killed someone in error, but never deliberately or in anger. I oppose capital punishment, and think I am a man of peace. As a physician I regard each life lost prematurely as a defeat. When I watch the latest roll call of American dead in Iraq and Afghanistan at the end of PBS’ “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” I can feel the tears forming in my heart.
Despite this I cannot help feeling there are some people in this world who have done such terrible things that being killed once is too good for them; somehow they should be brought back to life and killed again. On a bad day I am stone cold certain I could be their executioner if given the chance, and were I to come upon a man who had driven a car full of explosives into a crowd of shoppers I am uncertain only of how many times I would have shot him before I killed him.
These are moments when I am a man I barely know, moments of my greatest anger and fear, when I am a father blinded by grief for every lost daughter, or a physician who sees that the greatest number of lives saved can be obtained only by killing some killers as though they were a bad strain of bacteria.
America is filled with such parents at this time, all humanly and deeply flawed, riven with inconsistency and struggling to keep our wheels on the road to good intentions. These debates are swirling around in our heads, homes and halls of power; what end justifies what means, what price do we pay to be as tolerant as we want to be, what sacrifices must be made in order to be governed by the rules of law and decency, and what should we do when violence strikes our families?
Our mixed feelings don’t simply mean we need the light of law to guide us when the fogs of war and fear obscure our way. They also mean we don’t really know what we believe until we have to pay a steep price for believing it. We don’t really cherish freedom until we allow someone to use it to burn our flag, or plan assaults against our homeland, or threaten our families and our way of life. We do not really believe in the rule of law until we refuse to allow it to be suspended in the trials of terrorist suspects.
The Amish cannot be said to forgive until their tenet of forgiveness has been tested by great tragedy. I don’t really oppose capital punishment until I can stand there with a gun in my hand, every fiber wanting to pull the trigger, and choose to walk away.
It is the steady hand of reason, and the rule of law based on long-standing principles, that keep us from riding the rails of our rage into the abyss where people blow each other up in the name of justice, and torture each other in the name of freedom. We avoid similarities to the people of violence we despise only if we are nothing like them at our worst moments.
Erik Steele, D.O., a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems and is on the staff of several hospital emergency rooms in the region.