Despair Itself: A note of hope at the Panetta Lecture.
Thursday, May 6, 2004
In a perfect world, this past week would have been pure pleasure—it was the kind of week that rekindles our hope in life. The days were hot and long; flowers bloomed in the woods and gardens; the beaches were filled with yelling children and happy, half-naked grownups; the full moon appeared on a rare warm night. The first week of May comes only once a year, and this should have been one of the best.
But we don’t live in a perfect world, or even, as it appeared this week, in a particularly good one.
All of us were forced, this week, to confront the horrors of war. On Saturday, statistics were released showing that the previous 30 days had been the deadliest stretch since American soldiers entered Iraq. News reports all week long brought scenes of violence gone out of control, as military leaders flailed to contain a growing resistance. Worse, we were all made sick by images of torture—horribly, at the hands of men in American uniforms.
And worst of all, we witnessed the deluge of political advertisements, mostly from the Bush campaign, promising a season of political lies unprecedented in their aggressive, shameless duplicity.
It is natural to want to turn away from all of this horror, to put down the newspaper and turn off the TV news and let ourselves simply enjoy the good weather. It may even be good to let ourselves do that, rather than surrender to despair or allow the everyday awfulness to blind us to the good in life.
But we have to deal with the ugly stuff, too, partly
because it feels better to know that we are confronting the
difficulties that plague us, but mostly because it’s our
Leon Panetta made this latter point in Monterey on Monday night, as he wrapped up the first installment of this year’s Panetta Lecture Series. Following two hours during which he directed a bunch of hard questions at two ex-colleagues—former US Senate leader George Mitchell and former US Sen. Fred Thompson—Panetta delivered a little pep talk to the audience.
He praised his guests—Mitchell, a moderate Democrat, and Thompson, a moderate Republican—for their thoughtfulness and, more to the point, for their obvious mutual respect. And he urged the audience to become involved in the political process.
Most of all, he said, “we need to talk to each other.”
In any other week, this might have sounded like nothing more than a harmless platitude. Monday night, it sounded like simple, sage advice.
In a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon, Panetta expanded.
“I just believe that we are facing some of the toughest crises in a long time, in the nation and in the world, and there aren’t any easy answers. There aren’t any ideological answers. But there are some important questions. What’s going on? What is our nation about? What’s important to us, to our communities and our children?
“We need to have an open debate. Our democracy is at stake. And we need to ask these hard questions without being questioned about our patriotism.”
Here, the famously bipartisan Panetta sounded uncharacteristically angry, referring to an attack that Vice Pres. Dick Cheney leveled at Sen. John Kerry during the previous week.
“You know what it is? It’s demeaning to our democracy
itself,” he said. “You’d think the president and vice
president could conduct a campaign and not engage in political
There was one strange note of optimism struck during the onstage conversation Monday night.
Answering a question about the Middle East, Mitchell recalled the four years he spent brokering a peace agreement in Northern Ireland, where he served as Special Advisor to Pres. Bill Clinton. The thing that made peace possible, finally, was that regular citizens decided they’d had enough of violence.
“The public became sick of war,” he said. “They became weary of the overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety that made normal life impossible.”
Mitchell, who was in Israel last week, said he sensed the same thing happening there—people are finally becoming disgusted by the killing.
We can only hope for the same here.