The Return of Uncle Sam

David Forte

September 1, 2002

The Face of Man

There is a friend of mine, a Venezuelan, who now lives in the United States. He travels to Italy often and once described to me how he came to understand why Italy seems so much like home to him. He had been attending a conference in Turkey, and after the first night there, he awoke with a strange malaise. He thought it first that it was the time zone difference. But the second morning, the feeling of distress and loneliness was even deeper, and so on the third day. Then it came to him. Except for photographs of Ataturk, there was no human representation anywhere to be seen. But in Italy, he noted, the human face is everywhere to be seen: in statues, frescos, bas reliefs, oil paintings, in Churches, carved into the corners of buildings, in mosaic and in marble. It is the imago dei. It celebrates man.

As the center of Western art, Italy has shown what is central to Western art. Of all the great artistic traditions in the world—Chinese, Indian, Japanese, African, Islamic—none have man as its focus in the same way as does Western art. It is the human scale that makes art so accessible in the West.

All the plastic and performing forms of Western art—architecture, drama, dance literature, painting, sculpture, music—have the same focus. From its ancient beginnings in Greek and Roman art, the standard of beauty was the human form. But it was Christianity, the revelation of God becoming man, that brought Greek and Roman artistic instincts to their greatest self-understanding. In ancient art, the apotheosis of man was the hero. In Christianity, God himself as man becomes the hero, the Savior. The Incarnation shows us the worth and dignity of man as no other event in human history. The Holy Father’s letter to artists, and his writings on what he calls the anthropology of man highlights the truth that the greatest art reveals the relationship of man to God. Particularly in religious art, we see that the essence of beauty lies in man, and the essence of man lies in God’s loving hand.

The Face of Terrorism

On September 11, 2001, terrorists did not merely attack America. They attacked man. They attacked God’s loving hand. And the whole world knew it. Terrorism’s malice is not directed against a political object. It is directed towards man, and through him, towards God. The human spirit is terrorism’s enemy.

Where terrorism gains political control, it becomes totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is, simply put, regime terrorism. Lenin’s and Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China were terrorist states, by their own reckoning. So were the Taliban in Afghanistan. These regimes sought not only to destroy people, they sought to destroy persons. It is the very persona of man that stands in the way of their absolute dominion. That is why terrorist regimes always destroy art. They always burn books, break icons, blow up statues. They never produce anything of beauty, for beauty comes from the human spirit, and the human spirit is their enemy. When President Bush termed the terrorists “evil-doers,” it was not a rhetorical flourish. It was a cold hard fact.

The Face of America

After a decade of self-absorption led by a self-absorbed president, the attack of September 11 brought America back to herself, and the Uncle Sam that we had known under Roosevelt and Truman, under Eisenhower and Reagan, returned.

We are all aware of the flaws in American culture. All one needs to do is open up any newspaper any day in the world, inside of America, or outside, to see the faults described and decried. Yet the very elites in our country that most condemn America’s “acquisitive” culture are the very ones that adamantly oppose efforts to strengthen those institutions, such as family and church, that can most ameliorate our inadequacies. Nonetheless, despite the standard critiques of this country, there remains something that draws people to America. It is something beyond material success. It is something that strikes a universal longing. It is something that tugs at the very humanity of us all.

It is the American spiritual strength of character that responded to an act of malice and barbarism that had never happened to it before. Yes, the country spent time mourning the victims and condoling with their relatives. But the nation spent much more of its emotional attention on the heroes of the day. And who were these heroes? They were firemen like John Bartlett, and men like John O’Connell, and Sam Melisi, and Peter Rinaldi. They were Irish, Italian, and Catholic. They lived in modest neighborhoods, close to their neighbors, near to their parishes. They risked their lives (and many lost their lives) to save those, some of whom lived in high-rise luxury apartments in Manhattan, or in well groomed homes in Connecticut. They drove Chevrolets and Fords, yet struggled for those whose BMWs and Porches were parked in the collapsing World Trade Center garages. It never occurred to these men to make a decision based on class. That is not in the American character. The true hero is not selective over those whom he seeks to save. That is part of the allure of America: a place where every man can aspire to be a hero.

By focusing more on the hero than the victim, America celebrated that which is noble in the face of the ignoble. By focusing on the hero, America rejected a victim mentality. A victim mentality leads to hate, for if one thinks of himself as a victim, there must necessarily be a victimizer. Think of the problems in Northern Ireland, or in the former Yugoslavia, or between Israel and the Palestinians. To live as a victim means to live in constant reminder of those who made you a victim. Despite the fact that America had never been attacked in this way in its history, Americans made the conscious decision not to hate. Americans refused to become victims.

After a decade of what can only be termed a withdrawn and incoherent foreign policy, Uncle Sam also returned to the world stage. This, of course, is not the first time that the United States had been called upon to battle a terroristic and evil enemy. It was, in fact, a recurring theme of the 20th century. Over the last century, the United States entered the battle for Western civilization against terrorist ideologies that tried to desiccate the human spirit. Today, we have been drawn into the same kind of war. We are not in a clash between civilizations, but once again in a clash for civilization, including Islamic civilization.

In the West, the free world that won the civil war against terror and tyranny now examines what it is it fought for, what it is to become. The free world set its face against evil. Now we must remake our societies, and whether some of us are Christian or not, we must affirm that anthropology of man that the Christian tradition so abundantly champions.

For the same reason, the war against terrorism must be won. This is a war, as was the struggle against Nazism and Communism, to save civilization itself. It took a generation to defeat Nazism. It took a generation to defeat communism. It will likely take another generation to defeat this terrorism in a new form. We must all us take to heart the counsel of that remarkable Pope. We must not be afraid. We must not be afraid to grasp what has been handed to us. Justice demands that the dignity of man be defended, the dignity that Western art has always celebrated. It is a welcome task. It is a privilege. It is born of hope. And with this victory, we can once again allow the face of man to shine in beauty and in peace.

This article was drawn from remarks made by Professor Forte to the annual “Meeting of Peoples” in Rimini, Italy in August.

David F. Forte is a Professor of Law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Cleveland, Ohio and the author of Islamic Studies: Classical and Contemporary Applications. He is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio.