MANY Americans watched some months back as President and Mrs. Bush took us on a televised tour of the White House. The mood was warm, gracious, leisurely. It was a time when we were still savoring the good news from Eastern Europe, before Saddam Hussein's invasion once again narrowed our focus to a definitive enemy. Still, it was striking to see the president pause before a painting of Abraham Lincoln with his generals. In a suddenly hushed and solemn voice, Mr. Bush spoke of how a test of fire like the Civil War had not yet come for himself.
Now it is here, not only for the president, but for all of us.
A strange moment in our history, these weeks leading up to the Jan. 15 deadline of the United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam. That this moment is occurring during our own season of gift giving, of peace and goodwill, only heightens the contrast of lights and shadows, clarifies the connections between the moral and the material, and calls into question as never before the uncertain myths by which we have lived.
No longer can we take refuge in the illusion that war is glorious. We have seen the jungles of Vietnam on our nightly TV news. No longer can we assume that God is on our side. As a Peace Corps volunteer once said, ``The earth is a sphere, and a sphere has only one side. We are all on the same side.'' Saddam may be a tough customer, but Iraqi children dying in war would hurt the same way our own children would. No longer can we rationalize our right to unlimited cheap gasoline. The planet's resources are everyone's, to be conserved and distributed as fairly as we can.
Like Scrooge in the hands of his three ghosts, we are allowed a kind of waking dream in these precious weeks. It is as if the imminence of war has pulled us outward, away from this little planet, to a place where we can see into our past, present, and future.
Looking back, we can see the endless quarrels of the Middle East, and our own Western entanglement in these quarrels. We see the many nations, including our own, who sold billions of dollars worth of armaments to anyone who, by virtue of being an enemy of our enemy, had become a temporary friend. We see endless opportunities for the resolution of conflict missed, as expediency won out again and again over consistent principle. We see our failure to create an energy policy, even after the scarcity of oil in the 1970s woke us briefly out of our complacency. As clearly as any historian, we can trace back along the rope of time the causes of the present tension. We ourselves are woven into the strands.
The present is harder to see, even in this clarifying dream-moment. But we can say that something in our minds prefers the simplicity of Saddam as an opponent to the complexity of what is happening to our own failing inner cities, our failing schools, our failing banks.
We see ourselves driving to crowded malls, doing our last-minute shopping, thinking about those on active service in the Gulf (a disproportion number of them from the inner city), reading the editorials, listening to the testimony for and against patience, trying to think through the timeless dilemma of how to respond effectively to the naked use of force - in short, reacting rather than responding to events, because it seems too late to take the preventive initiatives which might have avoided the sacrifices we hope we won't have to make.
The future presents us, as it presented Scrooge, with two futures. In one, we give war yet another try. We see the anguish and pain, the burned tanks, the mangled corpses of young Iraqi and American soldiers. We see the questioning, the mass protests in the streets, the Monday-morning quarterbacking of the pundits, the Western ``caretaker'' government imposed on sullen, resentful Arabs, the ancient patterns of hatred and revenge in the Middle East extended into another generation, the history books trying to make sense of it - was it war to protect ``our'' oil? Was Saddam in fact another Hitler? Would the sanctions have worked if we had held off from war a few more months?
Or we can see another future, in which we, the American people, rise to our responsibilities in a complex world. We engage in a massive national dialogue about the long-term implications of war and diplomacy, because we know war will solve nothing. We examine the values by which we live and acknowledge that our heavy use of the world's energy obligates us to special responsibilities and restraints. We begin to look at what's best for all people. We support efforts toward a deep reconciliation between the West and Islam. We applaud our president for putting together an international coalition that holds back a tyrant with patient sanctions, thus setting a precedent for a consistent, principled response to aggression.
From the perspective of our waking dream, looking down upon this blue, borderless planet, all war has become civil war. Resources poured into militarism are lost to environmental repair, lost to health care, lost to education - in Iraq as well as here. Our true test is to build a global community girded not by nuclear and chemical fire, but by a constructive fire of goodwill that comes from within, fire that could melt the heart of even the most intractable enemy. May this fire light the fateful weeks ahead.