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Why They Call the War Power the "Stop Look and Listen" Clause--And Why We Need to Stop, Look and Listen Now

"Congress shall declare war and grant letters of Marque and Reprisal." --U.S. Constitution


The fundamental assumption of the war clause is that peace is desirable and war is abhorrent. Peace is the norm and war is an aberration from that condition. Therefore, the war clause sets up protections for the maintenance of peace as far as law and governmental structure can help. These rules of democracy protect us, as far as law can reach, from acts taken in a condition of irrationality, ignorance, venality, or personal vendetta conducted in the name of the state; from acts of group hysteria: blood-lust of the mob, with ancient primal cultivation of hatred of another--a person or a state or another tribe by whatever name. The "stop, look and listen," functions of the war clause at least give us pause to listen to ourselves, to reflect. To debate amongst and within ourselves. A legal structure is created with huge advantage for the status quo of peace. The burden of persuasion is clearly placed upon those who would take us to war.


The war clause was brilliantly conceived in order to preserve the peace and to make the decision for war possible only after deliberation, reflection, debate, and a substantial democratic consensus that liberty could be maintained only by resort to violence. The decision for war or peace was therefore entirely vested in the Congress of the United States, the deliberative branch, where dispatch was consciously subordinated to reflection and dialogue, over sufficient time that the
passions, misconceptions and the lies of the moment may be exposed and replaced by healing, perspective, and truth.

Congress was further invested by the Constitution with the authority to determine the law of nations, or international law, for our own nation, among other reasons to insure that violence, if undertaken, would be used proportionately with the gravity of the violence used against us, for the protection of human beings and human society. The entire human society, in other words, was to be considered before the ultimate act of human violence--war--was ever to begin.

This clause applies to every conceivable war: public, private, covert; declared, undeclared. "Make" war was changed in the Constitutional Convention, to "declare," simply to make sure that self-defense was, of course, the presidential prerogative, within the constitutional understanding of self-defense. That is, "self defense" was to be defensive, not offensive; actual, not illusory.

The last words of the war clause, "and grant letters of marque and reprisal," were the eighteenth century way of describing private war, or engaging heretofore private actors into public service for a particular defense of the state. For example, if Queen Elizabeth wanted Francis Drake, a pirate who might be hanged at will by any nation for violating the laws of peace and war, to make war on the Spanish Armada, the Queen would deliver to Francis Drake a letter of Marque and say, "sic 'em!" Whereupon Francis Drake would continue his life as a pirate, but confine his immediate activity to sinking the Spanish Armada. After which the Queen would knight Sir Francis Drake, hopefully a few years before hanging him.

"Reprisal" was and is a term of international law granting a right of immediate and violent response, of course proportional to the original offense, to the offended state. This would be considered an act of war, not a state of war, justified and confined by the scope and nature of the preceding violent act. Here, too, the power was congressional and not presidential. Congress granted such power to the Commander-in-Chief, not by delegation but only in a specific case, where violence upon us had already occurred. "Inherent" power was not a term any self-respecting whig or democrat or republican would have tolerated, as it clearly implied an imperial executive who in time of delusion and inflation considered himself a king.


The first part of the war clause says simply "Congress shall declare war." This means that in all situations save one, self-defense, the Congress and not the president shall decide for war or peace.

This clause does not allow for presidential war unless this nation is attacked in an act of war. The brutal assault of Bin Laden and al Qaida upon the United States of America would allow, even demand, every effort of the president as Commander-in-Chief to deflect, contain, and respond to such terrorism. Self-defense needs no congressional authorization. In such a situation the president may counter this assault by self-defensive acts to ward off the violence aimed at us, or at least contain it, until Congress may act. There is no hint of "preemptive self-defense" in the Constitution. Later practice by this country and by other nations has seen the birth of such a doctrine. But the doctrine of self-defense in American law was defined by Daniel Webster, then Secretary of State, in the Caroline, a dispute involving violence between the United States and Canada, shortly after the American Revolution.

It will be for that government to show a necessity of self-defense, instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, no moment for deliberation. It will be for it to show, also [that the nation using so-called defensive violence] did nothing unreasonable or excessive; since the act, justified by the necessity of self-defense, must be limited by that necessity, and kept clearly within it. It must be shown that admonition or remonstrance...was impracticable, or...unavailing. It must be shown that daylight could not be waited for; that there could be no attempt at discrimination between the innocent and the guilty....

Self-defense must thus be severely limited in scope or this exception to the law that Congress, not the president, must decide for war or peace could itself be consumed by the executive use of aggressive violence done under the guise of self-defense. Aggressive war is prohibited by the American Constitution, and by international laws from the beginning of that ancient body of jurisprudence. These principles of constraint upon violence; this predilection for the peaceful resolution of disputes, has been reiterated in international law and made part of our national municipal law by our ratification of numerous treaties, including the Kellogg-Briand treaty's outlawry of aggressive war, and by the United Nations Charter, whose chief architect was the United States of America.

Congressional determination for war or peace allows huge advantages over precipitate presidential war. One person is subject to a personal agenda or vendetta. She or he may be physically or mentally ill. All the human frailties make individual choice unstable, unpredictable. Only in the absolute necessity of a decision that must be made instantly should a presidential decision to act be considered to be authorized by the Constitution; and even then simultaneously constrained by the severe limitations of self-defense as defined and delimited by the Constitution and by the law of nations.


The framers, fearful of the human capacity of perpetual war in the mind, and mindful of the human --and the monarchical-- inclination to make war perpetually and whimsically, allowed no standing army to tempt such people to use the means of violence since the army was there, seductively available to what might appear to be the quick and simple military solution to the problem at hand. Again reflecting the truly democratic nature of American government, the framers left it to Congress to create an army and a navy lest the president be inclined to misuse the potent but limited powers of the Commander-in-Chief who was, in Alexander Hamilton's phrase from the Federalist Papers, quite simply "Congress' general."

President Dwight Eisenhower sensed the awful crisis in the American soul and the American dream; and the threat to American history, when huge standing armies, with their arsenals of war serving also as engines for their own self-perpetuation, here and in other countries, would be available to a president without Congress's prior creation. His famous warning against the "military industrial complex" that might one day fuel our politics and destiny toward the threat of war and against democratic government reflected this fear.

This condition of perpetual war is now upon us. Our weaponry, and the world's, now make the consequences of the choice for war rather than peace both more likely and possibly cosmic in consequence.

The most likely cause of wars, I believe, even topping greed and ignorance, is our fear of the other. Fear, during times of war, is endemic and dreadful in consequence, as it feeds our human inclination to assume the worst in our enemy. This fear thereafter is self-fulfilling. The lethal conduct of the other that we most fear may be generated by our own fearful acts. This projection in turn fuels the fears of our enemy, continuing the "worst case" analysis of both sides.

One consequence of this potentially endless descent into fear and violence is that such fear also lessens the likelihood that simple rules of rationality can prevent such fearful descent into violence, such as the hugely helpful limitation of assumptions provided by Occam's Razor. William of Occam suggested that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon of unknown origin was, prima facie, the most likely. This rule, for me personally, has been hugely helpful in time of stress. It stops me, at least for a time, from assuming the worst motives of an adversary. It settles me down. It helps me stay sane, at least until the plot either thickens or evaporates.

Fear is both the cause and the consequence of wars of the mind: a state of war of the mind in which that violent condition, the matrix of war of the mind, never comes to rest. From 1914 until late 1989, the momentum and the fear created by World War I never came to an end. A Cold War took up where a hot war, World War II, ended, punctuated occasionally by covert wars, often more insidious and criminal because they were fought by proxy. Generations since have never really known a condition of peace in the world and peace of mind.

For the same reason, Just War requirements contained from the beginning the principle that wars have a distinct beginning and distinct end. War in perpetuity was a violation of both the laws of God and the secular law. War must be delimited. In geography; in weaponry; in strategy and tactics; in the choice of weapons and their targets; between combatant and non-combatant; and perhaps most importantly, in time and in the mind. War, time out of mind, quickly produces that condition, in dreadful reality.


If Congress decides for war, several demands are now placed upon our legislators in fulfilling their constitutional mandate to declare war. Our guides are, at the very least, three. First, the clear text of the Constitution. Second, the historical gloss of two-hundred years-plus of our conduct under the Constitution. Third, the factual demands of the moment, the crises of the present, as driven and also as mitigated by blinding technological and societal change, as if time its very self has been speeded up, not artithmeticaly but geometrically.

All three factors, it seems to me, speak with one voice on the war clause of the American Constitution. Our text is clear, though our Constitution is not a police code, as John Marshall reminded us in Marbury v. Madison and the constitutional beginning of judicial review. The fundamental principles are in place. The code-like details we've created in political and judicial practices in the years following the Constitution's creation. We have filled in a certain amount of textual silence or constitutional ambiguity with precedent created by our resolution of conflict over two centuries. This jurisprudence thus created has been termed constitutional gloss by Felix Frankfurter. This interpretation of authoritative text is as old as our accounts of creation and human history. The process involves a stew of interpretative techniques which at once allows the holy text to continue through time with relevance to today while stretching almost impossibly to remain faithful to the founding ideas simultaneously.

The first requirement of a declaration or resolution of war must be that the state or entity against whom we make war must be clearly identified. We do not make war upon whole regions of the world. Neither do we make war, at least since the Crusades and the Inquisition, upon religious groups or ethnic groups. Various exceptions to this wisdom are now generally recognized as terrible mistakes, at best; or as planned perfidy, such as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

Second, a bill of particulars specifying the acts of war committed against us by the offending state must be presented to the Congress and to the country. The ideal form for this, in our country's history, was drafted by Thomas Jefferson. It is the Declaration of Independence. Read it carefully. It is as brilliant as the American Constitution and remains a model for us now, in reflecting a principled statement of grievances, resonating from and adhering to, and confirmed by, democratic government and the rule of law.

Further, such a specification must be phrased in such a way as to present grievances and remonstrances sufficiently principled that they could be applied generally, if we intend this declaration, like our generic best, the Declaration of Independence, to be law and not a fig leaf under which we do as we wish to a country we don't like, because their leadership is not of our choosing. Can we truly rid the world of nuclear weapons, or biological weapons, or chemical weapons, by making war upon every state possessing such weapons? Are we to make war on North Korea? North Korea is governed by a tyrant who in that respect is surely Saddam's equal. North Korea is indeed working to acquire nuclear weapons. What of Iran, home of terrorists who in fact attacked our county (though events are now moving, we hope, more peacefully toward greater internal modernity and freedom)? The same holds true for Pakistan which, with India, developed nuclear weapons, over our objections. Any state possessing nuclear weapons is in truth capable of inflicting terrible casualties on us.

Do we really think we can bomb and kill and maim the world back into a pre-nuclear Eden? Or into a world into which biological agents, older than the human species, do not exist? Or where chemicals can't be perverted by humans into agents of death?

We possess the largest and most sophisticated armory of weapons the world has ever seen. At one time or another in the past century we have used every conventional weapon known: incendiaries aimed at the largest population centers of Asia and Europe; chemical weapons, high-tech "smart bombs." Blockbusters and city busters. Weaponry used in the Gulf War and again in the Balkans included a mix of armor piercing missiles coated with so-called "depleted uranium," radioactive and injuring thousands of civilians over hundreds of years to come. Such weapons do not allow the containment and violence within any space and time. Nor do they allow any distinction between combatant and non-combatant. Civil and covert and proxy wars of our sponsorship in Southeast Asia and the Carribean killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in the middle of the past century. Our own record with testing, deploying, using, and storing of weapons within our own country in time of hot and cold wars, is shameful.

I live in the West. In Utah and Nevada, we felt and inhaled and ingested the radioactive debris of our testing of nuclear weapons. The cadavers of such weaponry now contaminates our land, our deserts, our water. In my state we test, store or destroy, or try to destroy, some of this. We test and store a huge portion of our nations's stockpile of biological and chemical weapons. We are now engaged in a bitter struggle to keep out of our state radioactive material from nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. Living by the sword and dying by the sword has many meanings, multiple reincarnations. We live nearby the sword and therefore we die nearby the sword. Whether or not we go to war. Neither Congress nor the president ever even extended us the courtesy of declaring war upon us before the violence began.

The United States of America remains the only nation to use nuclear weapons against an adversary in a time of war.

How do we keep these weapons of mass destruction from further testing, deployment and use by all nations? This really is the question of our time.

War, if war must come, should be only a last resort, entered with a truthful and specific bill of remonstrance and grievance, and severely limited in weapons, participants, geography and time. What we face in the Middle East allows no such resolution. Not, at least, by us.

What we have in the Middle East is a civil war. A civil war for the soul of Islam. Will Islam and the Arab states be able to move toward modernity, or at least choose the best part of modernity, as they determine? While retaining what is best in Islam? That is their challenge. We reached the same point historically, at the time of the Reformation, Renaissance and Enlightenment. For the West, the watermark was the end of the Wars of Religion and the recognition of secular territorial statehood.

We enter this war motivated in part by good intentions to help good people avoid tyrants and their terror. We want all people to share the civil rights and the liberties we enjoy. But we have other motives, historically and now. They include greed and need for oil. As if the Iraqis don't somehow understand that our oil, only by God's accident, sits under their land. We are demonstrating a thirst for world domination not seen to this level of hubris since Rome went wrong. We also possess the power to take what we want how we want and when we want. We think. We think wrong. Militarism is what we're about and the irony, also not new, is that much of the military know better. Their civilian advisers are the imperialists, the greedy, and the ones who don't really understand the terrible effects of the use of military violence, the endless ripples and tidal waves of violence and death and disease and economic and ethical catastrophe that will most surely follow.

The West can help this process towards economic and social growth toward democratic government. But if our colonial past intermixes now with sheer greed for oil and the politics of power, we will make things incomparably more dangerous for ourselves and for the states of the Middle East. We cannot resolve this crisis in Islam and throughout the Middle East and South Asia and Africa. Even we possess no such power. And no such wisdom. We demonstrate nothing even approaching such a lofty level of ethics and spirituality.

For a culture possessed of a history radically different than the West, we do, however, possess a gift of inestimable value. We in the West, from Reformation and Renaissance to now, have developed a splendid culture of democratic government, an egalitarian ethic, and modern and productive economies without historical parallel. The tragedy of our present course is that this wondrous example can be seen by others only in a time of peace. It can be emulated in whatever form a different culture deems appropriate, only in a time of stability, rationality, and peace. The economic and political gifts cultures might share with each other can only be determined in a time of peace. We are and we will continue to make things dreadfully worse unless we understand both our peripheral role and at the same time bring to that understanding a huge respect for the sacrality and autonomy of the beliefs of Islam, and for the institutions of Islam built to sustain these beliefs.

A constitutional declaration of war must convince Congress and the American people that these acts of war by the state we presume to attack rise to such a level, are of such a nature as to truly justify the commitment of our lives and our treasures to deflect, mitigate, or prevent the acts of violence against our nation.

War, perhaps, cannot always be avoided. We live in a particular time and place in history and geography. Present leaders cannot undo the mistakes of the past century. Particular threats to the peace must be met. I acknowledge these problems and I do not presume to possess sure answers. But of this much I am sure. War will not help reduce the poverty, the ignorance, the fear, and the social injustice within these groups and countries upon which Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein depend, upon which they feed and pretend to defend. While we meet the crisis of the moment, real or manufactured, we must also spend the much greater time and resources of the governments of the world in dealing with the truly great issues. Removing all weapons of mass destruction from all nations, including our own, must be our agenda, or else these weapons may be used by someone. In reality we don't have any idea from what state or from what terrorist organization they may come. It is not unlikely, for example, that our own first taste of a nuclear explosion might have its origin from within our borders, whether by accident, miscalculation, or design. Of even more importance: we must resolve our differences without resorting to violence. I do not understand the proposition that war with Iraq will somehow accomplish either. The basic causes of war, existing before and influencing the nature of our proximate causes of war, are fear, greed, poverty and ignorance. Charles Dickens got it right.

Finally, the declaration or resolution of war, in order to satisfy both constitutional and international law, must satisfy and specify our need to resolve all issues by peaceful means in order that our own obligations are met, as human and civilized beings. Again, examine the listings of every possible peaceful resolution and remonstrance given by Jefferson in enumeration of our attempts peacefully to deal with our great motherland, England, in the Declaration of Independence. Then read the current resolution for the use of force against Saddam Hussein. The American people, along with the Congress, should be able to be assured and convinced that every possible means of peaceful resolution of these disputes have been undertaken and exhausted without hope of renewal and success through peaceful means. These include conciliation, fact-finding and inquiry; mediation; arbitration; good-offices, and negotiation.


The war power of Congress is not able constitutionally to be delegated. The non-delegation doctrine, upheld repeatedly by the United States Supreme Court, clearly prevents Congress from granting the power to wage war sometime in the future, under conditions not immediately determined, to the president. The entire war clause and all its values therein and thereby protected cry out for our honoring this assumption. The war clause, if anything, is a "stop, look, and listen" protection offered to the American people, and now the people of the entire world, before we embark into the unknown and unknowable adventure of savage violence.

Are we sure of our facts? Did our enemy of the moment really do the things a president may claim he did? Were peaceful means really invoked and steadily maintained through the techniques of diplomacy: fact-finding and inquiry; conciliation; good offices; mediation and arbitration? Negotiation and compromise? We are indeed obliged to proclaim peace and to denounce war until war is put upon us. Has Hussein done this to us? To his own, to be sure. And to his neighbors. But that doesn't distinguish him, except in the vital area of degree, from our own leaders. And not at all from the serial killers heading regimes surrounding him. In any but the last extremity of human life, "anticipatory self-defense" is the oxymoronic reflex of a fool or a madman or a villain.

War is the ultimate surrender of much that makes us human, our last effort to control our own destiny or indeed, to maintain our own lives. Any act of violence --and war is certainly the apex of violence--precipitates the end of our control or even influence over our own destiny. The first hour of actual warfare is the last hour in which any battle plan; any tactic or strategy; and many of our rules that determine our collective civility truly governs our action throughout the conduct of the violence we call war. Murder and collective murder have thereafter been sanctioned by the state as a course of corporate action and all of us must continue to be accountable for these acts done thereafter in our name.


Our Constitution and its war clause were struck in the eighteenth century, in 1787 in Philadelphia, over 200 years ago. International law is both older and younger still, straddling our Constitution's creation. The birth of these primal bodies of law is from many sources and many centuries and includes the collective wisdom of positive law and natural right; and religious rules from every religious and spiritual and human body of thought since creation. Many technological and societal changes have occurred even since the relatively recent birth of our Constitution. Many of those voices clamoring for war, including the president, the vice president, and the secretary of defense, tell us that these new forms of war--nuclear weapons, delivery systems placing our cities and our countries at risk in minutes with ICBM's and air-borne and water-borne weapons of disease and death --anthrax and plague-- call for the capacity to go to war in minutes or seconds. Somehow, that there is no time for Congress to deliberate and debate. Congress was asked to delegate its war power and Congress complied. Senator Robert Byrd of Virginia spoke words of wisdom days ago, much as Senators Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening did before the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. He said, "Why don't we simply hang a sign over the doors of Congress: "out of business."

President Bush and various members of his cabinet and staff spoke earlier of presidential power that allowed him, at his discretion, not even to approach Congress and the United Nations. Such talk is dangerous and delusional. Our president has the power to respond on our behalf in self-defense if he can interdict a terrorist or a missile. But the deliberative reflective virtues of congressional debate and sober reflection of the American people remain hugely more important then presidential dispatch to the survival of our people and our Republic and to all human society, now more than ever.

There is no doubt that time erodes and in some cases entirely obliterates the meaning of some parts of any legal structure, including the Constitution. The provisions concerning black Americans; the absence of rights for women and for native Americans and a number of other matters dealt with, or not, in the Constitution are but examples.

But I ask you, what is there in the nature of modern war: nuclear war, biological war, war with chemicals; or for that matter, the fire-bombs and chemical blockbusters that devastated Europe in the middle of the twentieth century --the century of total war-- that make war more to be desired now? Or at least to be more quickly begun? Done with less thought and reflection? What entices those who guide us to destroy or deflect those constitutional and international legal principles that call for peace and peaceful resolution? What's the hurry? What is the attraction of war and violence to these people? Whoever said that peace wasn't patriotic? Do we really believe that peaceful means are less effective in nation-building than first destroying the nation we intend to rebuild? Just when was it that precipitous action toward war replaced thoughtful debate as a virtue of the citizen? Or that peace replaced pride --even national pride-- as one of the seven deadly sins? Or watchful waiting now stands in the place of wrath as a vice in Dante's Inferno? Have we ever seriously contemplated the utter horror of nuclear war? Or a world slowly dying of plagues we cannot prevent or cure? I believe that our individual and national pride -- the worst of Dante's seven deadly sins; and avaricious gluttonous greed; and an insatiable thirst for raw power over the entire globe -- now threaten us with a precipitous descent into an inferno of which neither Dante's unmatched gift of words nor William Blake's capacity to illustrate could even remotely begin to warn us. We face the wrath we intend to inflict upon others unless we turn around. Somehow we must see ourselves, all of us in this good earth... as sisters and brothers indistinguishable by nationality and belief except for the delightful diversity of color. There is, after all, only one race. The human race. Not the arms race. Surely not the race to war. But the cadenced walk of the human being upon the journey toward the peace of God.

What in the nature of technological and societal change make the precipitate action, the capacity for quick response and remorseless speed of the executive branch more valuable to us now that war can be commenced with rapidity and finality? The power of self-defense is always with the executive. Dispatch is always his. But the value of those congressional virtues of thought, reflection; pause. Stop, look and listen. Now more than ever seem to this old Whig to be of inestimably greater value. The consequences of a misstep into war are now so grotesquely greater than they were in the eighteenth century. So I argue that the precise opposite of what the president and his advisers are saying is in fact true. Now is the time for deliberation, not declaring ourselves to be the world's greatest bully. Let us declare a day or a month or a year of international dialogue and prayer. Not a declaration of war. For the weapons we now have, not even dreamed of in the nightmares of the greatest fiend of the eighteenth century, now reside in the arsenal, he seems to think the private arsenal, of the president of the United States. These weapons now threaten not the peace of our own village or hamlet; not our own area of the country or even just our own nation. But very possibly the continuation of our human society and the human species.


Violence once undertaken cannot thereafter be contained. The restraints of all law: constitutional, international, municipal; religious and secular --all operate hugely to prevent violence, to avoid war through peaceful resolution. Those comparatively puny rules applied even in a sane and rational way, imposed by a Congress operating at its best upon a president operating... well, conducting his office the way most presidents do -- a long way from anything done in the last fifty years --will be swept aside by the tornadoes created by the first hour of war. Every strategy and tactic decided upon by political and military leaders in time of peace cease to exist, in reality, with the first hour of combat. Even our innate power of free will is placed at risk by the violent directions war propels and impels us in its fury. Congressional rules, and intended norms of self-restraint placed upon a president, he thinks and fully intends, by the power of his own conscience are swept aside as straw in the fierce gales that blow through the hell of modern war. The acts of ourselves and others are thereafter propelled by technology given its own mind as surely as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. All are drawn down, despite all our good intentions, as events and the technology of violence push us, despite our attempts to swim back to shore, into a black whirlpool without light or bottom.

Every constraint of law we possess: constitutional proscriptions against the assumption of war; international forbiddance of violence and war; even the millennia of growth of international law; and finally the evolutionary restraints of civilization of our own species --those Darwinian and intentional inclinations to do good rather than to do evil as we evolve toward the Creator- may now be destroyed by weapons so powerful as to threaten Genesis. This is now possible only in this past decade. We now threaten creation every time we invoke the level of violence now possible in the weaponry we, far more than any other nation, have led out in developing, deploying, stockpiling, and using. We are the ultimate terrorists. It is not our wish. But we have let our democratic ship of state be hijacked by terrorists in every sense, offering nothing but lip service to democracy or peace. Indeed, our stewardship of the planet calls into radical question any possible fidelity to each other and to God, unless we turn away from violence now.

I live in the American West. I led the successful campaign to defeat the basing of the MX missile--the most fearful thermonuclear weapon of continental destruction ever made--and its crazy basing system continuously on the move on highways of the West. Our grassroots efforts derailed a strategic nuclear weapons system that had been approved and funded by Congress and the president. The costs were great. Divorce of many young couples under the siege of numberless days and nights speaking to our citizens. But our churches, synagogues and mosques joined our symphony, our professional organizations, the AFL-CIO; our academics and our ranchers and our environmental groups. We had the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and Friends of the Earth; and the cattlemen and sheepmen and hunters, all in bed together. Native Americans played a critical role. Peace groups and many in the military joined us. The defeat of MX came at the first half of the decade that saw the end of the Cold War. We defeated a huge phalanx arrayed against us: the president of the United States. The Congress. All of my state's senators and congressmen supported MX as if it were just a great big post office. Jobs and money. We took on Martin Marietta and Thiokol. The missile industry and the United States Air Force. The whole military-industrial complex. We won. We just said, "no!"

The line beyond which our progressing further destroys any remaining free will we possess, with such tiny but incomprehensible value, held together with such stunning fragility is seen, for whatever reason, only in ominous retrospect. The dreadful deadly determinist world that follows will make the inferno seem like paradise indeed. In the Creator's understanding, we are obliged for whatever reason to respect such tragic boundaries, beyond which human choice governs no more, with the awe and respect we would accord a burning bush. Or, if you prefer, with the dread induced by Dante's introduction into Hell: "Give up all hope, ye who enter here." Surely the invocation of international war is far into the area where we are indeed walking on sacred ground --or its opposite-- at the risk of our very souls. In our time, once we invoke war our chance to repent of war may be severely limited. Eventually in such days that point of no return will be past before we come to consciousness of what we have done. In the night of such a time our capacity to go up and on ceases. There may indeed be no morning. We will not, possibly, be aware that the "stop, look and listen," signs have all gone by. We will not know that we have passed the point where liberty, choice, free will and the capacity to turn around, by our own volition, is behind us. That point is seen retrospectively. That indeed will be hell on earth. Such is the nature of tragedy.

Tragedy is not what we usually experience in life: that is, good people getting their just deserts. Or bad people suffering. It is not what Job is about: why bad things happen to good people. Tragedy is that human capacity to move into violence and evil so great that even good and well-meaning people, along with the rest of us, can no longer be restored to home and family, or ever hope for another yet to be born. Tragedy is that human capacity to move or even to blunder into violence and evil so dense, so great, that there is no light. The promise is that the light will not go out. Not that the light will prevail over darkness, but that darkness finally cannot fully extinguish the light. But if we move into a place where free will itself is absent; and if God works through humans and other representatives of life; and if our capacity to influence those directions is itself in question, how dare we begin our descent into such as abyss?

In tragedy, all of the human actors --the good, the evil; the stupid, the truly stupid, and the gifted; the ignorant and the poor, the rich and those who want so very much to be-- and most of us sharing great quantities of all the inclinations toward goodness and twisted goodness: all realize at some point that our path now ends inevitably in death. That we went wrong, truly wrong, at some point, some definable and now cognizable point some time ago. But our own actions and the stars now dictate the path toward death. I think of those last days before World War I began. The century of total war. The inevitability --the unrepentable nature of such a course after a certain point --is the essence of human tragedy. Now, only God's intervention, unmediated by humankind, yet remains. Othello, Hamlet, Lear. The tragic flaw. Original sin. Whatever.

In the play "Rosencranz and Gildenstern are Dead," based upon Shakespeare's "Hamlet," these two fellows, who rather unwittingly set in motion a chain of events, (interestingly, as spies against Hamlet, at the behest of the King...what they called "presidents" in those days) leading to the death of most of the major protagonists: Hamlet, his mother; her husband, the King; Laertes, Hamlet's loyal friend. All are very dead. These two men, not really bad people; not disturbed unduly by an abundance of brains, but that hardly distinguishes them from us, or for that matter, from many of those who govern the nations of the world, including our own. They carry a sealed letter as they sail across the sea, they think to safe haven, sanctuary. In actuality, the letter directs the recipient to put them to death with dispatch. In this drama of death, destruction and violence, one of those about to die speaks fateful words to his accomplice: "there must have been a time, somewhere near the beginning, when we could have said no."

Copyright Edwin B. Firmage