A crisis of courage
In a speech to Harvard University's graduating class of 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn attacked the West's weak confrontation of communism. His words remain instructive today as we face a different ideological threat.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Solzhenitsyn warned that "The Western world has lost its civil courage..." and rhetorically asked, "Should one point out that from ancient times decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end?" He lamented that "[N]o weapons, no matter how powerful, can help the West until it overcomes its loss of willpower."
Solzhenitsyn's beliefs in faith and courage undoubtedly drew the attention of a new generation of leaders. Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II – like the giants of America's founding – came to their positions of authority at a historically propitious time and helped supply the essential willpower of which Solzhenitsyn spoke. Under their strong leadership, communism collapsed, democracy and free-market economies gained currency, and liberty seemed to be on the march worldwide.
Unfortunately, our respite from ideological confrontation was short-lived. And, once again, the same lack of courage has inhibited the West's struggle against global terrorists, many of them state-sponsored.
Solzhenitsyn actually foresaw much of our current predicament in that 1978 commencement address. He observed that "Political and intellectual bureaucrats ... get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists." Consider, for example, the UN's weak resolutions against Iran.
Solzhenitsyn also observed: "When a government starts an earnest fight against terrorism, public opinion immediately accuses it of violating the terrorists' civil rights. There are many such cases."
Indeed there are! The reaction, especially in Europe, to Saddam Hussein's death sentence is a case in point.
Here at home, the Supreme Court last June held in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that an alleged terrorist's civil rights were violated because, notwithstanding two centuries of precedents to the contrary, the president didn't have the authority to establish military courts to deal with terrorist detainees. But US public opinion did not support the notion that detainees should be entitled to American constitutional rights, and Congress responded by passing the Military Commissions Act, which denies habeas corpus protection to alien detainees and allows them to be tried in a process similar to military courts.
The Hamdan case also concluded that, while Congress could deny habeas protection to such detainees, it hadn't been clear in a prior law whether it meant to include existing as well as future cases. So when Congress passed the Military Commissions Act – signed by President Bush last October – it made it crystal clear that both future and existing cases were intended to be covered by the law. A lower federal court has upheld this latest effort, but, of course, that decision is being appealed.
It's fashionable to say that legal protections distinguish America from its enemies. But Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson's dissent in a 1949 case concerning free speech is also true: "There is danger that, if the Court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact."
A little practical wisdom, confidence in our cause, and more courage are sorely needed in the war against radical Islamists. Like Solzhenitsyn before, contemporary observers, such as Mark Steyn and Daniel Pipes, have condemned the weak response of the left to the terrorist threat. Mr. Pipes recently wrote that "Pacifism, self-hatred, and complacency are lengthening the war against radical Islam and causing undue casualties." He added that "left-leaning Westerners" will have to "overcome this triple affliction and confront the true scope of the threat" if the civilized world is to prevail against the Islamist terrorists.
At stake in the war on terror is nothing less than preserving Western civilization, as Solzhenitsyn sensed almost 30 years ago: "The fight, physical and spiritual for our planet, a fight of cosmic proportions, is not a vague matter of the future; it has already started."
The fate of future generations depends on how we answer the enemy's challenge today. To do that, we must clearly understand the nature of the threat we face – and we must marshal the courage and character necessary to prevail.
• Jon Kyl is a Republican senator from Arizona.