Thursday, July 22, 2004



"It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice.  For the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever.  They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord. ... They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor." Psalm 112:5-7, 9 (NRSV)

I was reminded of this psalm today while reading about the release of the 9/11 commission report.  Some of its tidings are not good.  It warns that the country's intelligence apparatus is still unprepared for the dangers posed by international terrorism, and that another attack by Al-Qaeda is not only possible, but probable.  All in all, the report is appropriately critical of American security practices.  But while reading about it, what concerned me most is that this report, like all the other tidings of doom and gloom emanating from the public sphere, does very little to challenge the idea of security itself as our new greatest good.

One day a history should be written about the American (or perhaps the modern) obsession with fear and security.  It's there in the jeremiads of Puritan divines; it's there in the Salem witch trials.  It's there in Jefferson's trembling before a just God about the fearof slave insurrection; there it is in FDR's "four freedoms."  And here we go again.  In the Rose Garden ceremony to receive the report, President Bush says "the most important duty we have is the security of our fellow countrymen."  In the current political and cultural climate, I suppose most people from both parties and all walks of life would agree.  The only substantial disagreements between, say, Kerry and Bush are about how best to execute this greatest of all obligations.

But is security the most important duty we have?  Making security a duty invests it with prima facie significance; it enjoins security for the sake of security.  The psalm I've quoted above contradicts such a picture of security: it describes the secure heart as a product of certain virtues.  If there are injunctions here, they have to do with things that, at first glance, have nothing to do with security: doing justice, giving generously to the poor, distributing freely.  At second glance, these duties seem not just irrelevant to current conceptions of security, but downright counterproductive.  The most common "security" fix in American politics is to spend more, not to give more away.  Thus, we continue to devote unprecedented amounts of our national budget to "security" while siphoning funds away from programs that give generously.  How often is the idea even broached that justice and generosity can secure the American heart?  Even those from the left who decry our neglect of social programs set these matters over against security, rather than linking them organically as the psalmist does.

The larger problem here, and the one that is most likely to escape notice, is that our definitions of security revolve around freedom from bodily harm.  We see the security of our hearts as a byproduct of physical security.  The fear our security is meant to banish is a fear of death.  And connected with that fear, with all fears about our mortality, is a fear of being forgotten, something the psalmist shrewdly notes.  You can stay alive, but only so long.  And staying alive doesn't guarantee that you won't be forgotten.  The only guarantee for that, the psalm suggests, are the aforementioned virtues of generosity and justice.  The key to being "remembered forever," and thus to being free from a fear of death, is to be righteous.  It is well with those who are.

The Bush administration has tried to weld together its professions of Christian faith with its priorities on homeland security.  (The same might be said of Israel's combination of security with faith, of the fence in Palestine with the wailing wall on the Temple Mount.)  This is a conjunction, however, that the scriptures of both the Hebrew and the Christian Bible confound.  As defined by American political culture, homeland security has nothing to do with the genuine security described here.  The causes of security are justice and generosity--not jailing hundreds of the usual suspects, not pouring money into military programs, not creating new cabinet posts and new departments.  According to the psalmist, to believe that takes faith and an extraordinary amount of hope in the Lord.  In its failure to embrace that faith fully, the Bush administration is proving not that it is guided too much by Christianity, but that its real hope in the promises of faith is in very short supply.

UPDATE: I should have noted that the 9/11 report includes acknowledgements that a fresh evaluation American policy must be part of any new security strategy.  See here.

Collective Improvisation:

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