May 17, 2011
To the Members of the 112th Congress:
Following the killing of Osama bin Laden on the orders of the President of the United States, some prominent European politicians, clerics, and journalists condemned the act. Americans, many of whom continue publicly to applaud bin Laden’s death, were likened to “Muslims celebrating in the Gaza Strip” following the attacks on America on September 11, 2001. What should Americans think of such criticisms? How, more generally, should we regard the opinions of the peoples and governments of other nations?
To take the second question first, the natural American place to begin a response seems to be with the Declaration that announced our independence to the world in 1776, a declaration that was offered out of “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” which “requires that [Americans] should declare the causes which impel them to the separation [from Great Britain].” Declaring the causes of our actions—giving reasons for them—was an act of respect for the opinions of mankind because it treated mankind as if their opinions could respond to reasons. This was a hopeful view of the human condition. It did honor to human nature and imposed expectations on human capacities.
The central idea proclaimed in the declaration—the main reason for our action—was the self evident truth that “all men are created equal,” that is, that all men everywhere and at all times possess by nature equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, this was an idea that seemed self-evidently untrue to the hereditary monarchs and nobility of Europe. So America showed its first respect for the opinions of mankind by disagreeing with most of them!—and in the same breath telling the peoples of the world how they might show greater respect for themselves, by recognizing and asserting the rights of their own humanity.
Americans were keenly aware how difficult it would be to live up to the principle they were proclaiming—how heroic and continuous an effort would be required of themselves or any people that aspired to rise to equality. This very difficulty is partly what makes it such an “honorable determination . . . to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.” As I have written in an earlier letter, “Any people that wished to be free, including the Americans, would have to demonstrate this capacity for themselves, and continue to demonstrate it each generation.” What could be more honorable to human nature? What could show greater respect to mankind and their opinions?
The American experiment claims to be a glorious experiment because it aims, for the first time in human history, to make actual the potential for self government that we Americans insist human beings have by nature. This is what the founders meant when they soberly—and by no means arrogantly—reflected on the fact that it seems to have been reserved to “the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice.”
The greatest respect Americans can show for the opinions of mankind is to take responsibility for being the kind of self governing people we invite all people to be. Taking such responsibility may require, in the sometimes hard course of human events, the killing of the bin Ladens of this world. As I said in my last letter, our men who killed bin Laden were “armed above all with the authority of the people of the United States. That is what dignified their violence and distinguished it from the brutality authored by their target.” How can the “authority of the people”—us—dignify such an act, raise it above the barbarism and savagery of bin Laden and all who support him and cheer him on? Only, I think, if “we the people” are the people we claimed to be, insisted on being, at our beginning—a people claiming the right to govern ourselves, as we proclaim and respect the same right for all other human beings; a people doing everything in our power to cultivate in ourselves the capacities necessary to vindicate this natural human right.
Such a people will conduct themselves so that an attack upon them could never in truth be said to be a blessing to mankind; so that if they are compelled to some harsh measure like the killing of bin Laden, the world may truly be said to be better off because of it. Such a people will arrange the political affairs of their land so that no one could with justice wish for the displacement of their rule by that of an enemy. They will be neither self-aggrandizing nor self-sacrificing. They will approach the world, in Washington’s words, as their “interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”
Such a people will understand that politics, though it must sometimes resort to harsh necessities like the killing of bin Ladens, is in the final analysis not reducible to such necessities. Even Sun Tzu, that great teacher of the art of war, understood that “[t]hose who excel in war [must] first cultivate their own humanity and justice,” that war is conducted ultimately for the sake of peace. Closer to home, our own John Adams offered his American version of that human wisdom, when he reflected , “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy.” The successful practice of the arts of necessity—which are forced upon us by the needs of mere life—seems to be a necessary condition for the flourishing of the arts of freedom—which we pursue because they prepare us to deserve, by using well, “the blessings of liberty.”
What about the more particular question, about American rejoicings at the killing of bin Laden? Of course, no self-respecting, self-governing people will condone dancing in the street to celebrate cruel necessities. Nor would it be a proud moment for such a people to make these cruel necessities applause lines in campaign rallies. But only a good people—a people able to take responsibility for choosing right over wrong—can be a self-governing people, and the world will be a sad place when good people can no longer rejoice at the triumph, however small and incomplete, of good over evil.