But you can’t just sit down and do nothing while you see others suffer. There is more to life than just be safe.
Omezzin Abu Srewil, Libyan medical student, explaining why she and her friends put their lives at risk helping fighters against Muammar Gaddafi.
PBS News Hour, Wednesday, August 31, 2011: “Gaddafi Troops Reject Rebel’s Surrender Deadline”
Those sentences may serve as an archetypal example of the best quality we possess as a species. Those two sentences capture for me the faces and words of other young Libyan fighters, of Egyptian students and women, of Syrian dissidents, of Iranian street protestors, of all idealists in the “Arab Spring” (and well beyond) who believe that freedom from torture cells and kelptocracies, personality cults and stifling constraints on free speech, cultural dead zones and religious fanaticism, is worth placing one’s body in the path of whatever machinery of repression their failing states can muster. Is there any virtue more compelling than raw courage? Is there any condition more worthy of heroic resistance than tyranny?
As a nation we are in a bad place. We are starved for jobs, moving toward know-nothingism and an iron-minded, fanatical, economic Darwinism, ill-served by a media more interested in process, self-righteousness and hourly sensationalism than factual reality, and governed by an increasingly ineffectual and weak president who seems to not believe in anything except compromise and by a reactionary congress that believes in nothing except a scorched earth policy. We seem to be drifting toward a reckoning of some kind that people sense but cannot yet see.Thus, for me, the intense voices of these men and women coming out of Libya are freshening, cold rain in the drought. They remind us of what it feels like to have a cause both immediately clear and one that is an unmistakable matter of life and death (Gaddafi promised the people of Benghazi on March 17: “It’s over….we are coming tonight….We will show no mercy….no pity“*).
When I see them speaking in clear, halting English, I sometimes substitute the faces and voices of my former students for theirs. The same passion for life and risk and the same desire to live wholly perseveres deep inside both; the Libyan students have had the tragic opportunity to find a worthy focus for their idealism: If the individual, in fact, accepts death and happens to die as a consequence of his act of rebellion, he demonstrates by doing so that he is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of a common good which he considers more important than his own destiny.**
Maybe only the most fearsome threat can cause us to rally around a common good. The threats we face in the United States seem diffused, unfocused, wisps of unsettling sounds on the wind rather than crunching and screaming coming from the woods.
I think we have the gene for sacrifice born within us. Perhaps providentially, we often lack the most worthy target for such sacrifice, but do we not yearn, now, from those who reside in statehouses and in Washington, for clarity of purpose, for the jointure of common sense and a resolute passion, for decency matched with strength, for an appeal to a unifying sacrifice, for an appeal to “the better angels” of our nature?
I will tell you that I had to wipe tears away after I watched Omezzin speak. I think she speaks for all our “better angels”.
**Albert Camus: The Rebel: Part One