Hey, man, slow down
On my most recent visit to Chicago, I noticed several people passing me by on the sidewalk. I reflected on this phenomenon. People of all shapes, colors and sizes power-walked past me. They competed with one another to see who could do the most things at once, all the while maintaining proper balance and velocity. Each seemed to have a mental checklist: sip coffee, light cigarette, button coat, take place cellular phone call and dodge glassy-eyed college student.
I looked up to find my friend many yards ahead of me. He kept pace with the other pedestrians, and I lengthened my stride to catch up.
"In the city," he informed me, "only idiots and tourists walk slowly."
I reflected for a moment: there are surely worse things than being thought an idiot or a tourist, or even being an idiot and a tourist (my case). But I found myself falling out of step again, so I told my brain to shut up and focus on walking.
That right there just about sums up the human condition. Oh, you object? Think about it: human beings are rational. We can contemplate, deliberate, verbally communicate with each other and create art. We can review the course of events and then choose an appropriate action. We can ponder what it might be like to die. At the same time, humans are animals. Instinctual appetites for self-preservation and procreation influence us just as they do animals.
If we indulge our rational nature by excessive reflection, we run the risk of falling behind on the sidewalk. If we over-indulge our animal instincts, life loses some meaning: we become multi-tasking, pleasure button-hitting caged rats.
As a further complication, some moments demand pure instinctual reaction. I wouldn't want a firefighter to pause for reflection on the proper course of action before rushing into a burning building to save lives; I would hope the firefighter reflected before he chose to become a firefighter. Of course this, is an easy example. Most every action should involve equal parts deliberation and instinctual impulse.
Consider a different example. What should the leaders of the world's most powerful country do when blindsided by a terrorist attack? Is a month of deliberation long enough to wait before beginning a military campaign in response to such an attack? Some people would say a month is too much time.
They would reason that the longer the wait, the greater the risk of losing more innocent lives to another attack. They would rather have a firefighter's reaction: rush into the fray in an effort to save as many lives as possible.
Some people would say a month of deliberation is too short. They would say that in this situation, a firefighter's reaction is only going to stoke the fire and harm the firefighter in the process.
I am one of these people. So far I offer cautious applause to our nation's leadership for attempting to formulate a plan of action; the best the Clinton administration ever did was clandestine revenge bombing of pharmaceutical companies. The United States must act with great poise and calm in the coming weeks if we are truly going to save as many lives as possible.
If America is the force of good in the world as I have been told so many times, then we have to protect not only American lives, but as many lives as possible. Our leaders have to be aware of the consequences of their actions, which include a massive and extended war with the specter of nuclear exchange lurking in the background. The leaders of the world carry a tremendous burden of responsibility and accountability.
I refuse to believe that the annihilation of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban — if they indeed are the responsible parties — will "excise the cancer of terrorism" or "eliminate evil from the world." Evil and terrorism have been around literally forever. And evil will continue no matter how many evil people we kill off or lock in prison. Only an extended, deliberated effort, a demonstration to terrorists that the entire world will unite against them, will make headway against terrorism. Anything else would be naïve, reckless zealotry. So far our country and allies have done a decent job of demonstrating this unity. But we must proceed carefully.
To paraphrase the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, human beings are gods who defecate. Think about that (not too hard, it's kind of gross).
Accordingly, we must be held accountable for each and every decision we make. We are capable of asking "why?" but we are not capable of answering the question absolutely. We must carefully consider multiple points of view before forming an opinion or determining a course of action. But we have to keep pace, because we cannot afford to be idiots or tourists.
Eric Long is a senior PLS major. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Wednesday, October 10, 2001