Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Neda and Obama’s Witness

The name Neda, here in the United States and in the world, has become pretty much a synonym for the Iranian resistance, now in a pause mode.

Neda Agha-Soltan was the beautiful young Iranian, not yet wrapped in a burka, shot by a sharpshooter in Iran, whose gruesome death was caught in a brief video seen by millions, including the president of the United States, Barack Obama.

It was that death and the iron fist of the leaders in Iran pummeling unarmed protestors that tore from Obama’s bosom this piece of prose: “The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people.”

And then Obama reached for his Martin Luther King: “Martin Luther King once said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ I believe that. The international community believes that. And right now we are bearing witness to the Iranian people’s belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness.”

We have in Obama a referential president: These few lines contain references, obvious and implied, to Martin Luther King, protests during the Vietnam War – “The whole world is watching” – and, possibly, the Christian Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, whose name will forever be associated with the expression “witness to the truth.”

It would have been a grand idea had Obama reached for his Kierkegaard before using the words “bearing witness” and “truth” in the same sentence.

When those words were used by a eulogist in connection with a Danish bishop who had just died, Kierkegaard exploded in indignation, because he knew witnessing to the truth was a Christian category that pointed directly to the cross. Peter, crucified upside down because he felt he was not worthy to die upright in the manner of Jesus, was a witness to the truth. The bishop, whose witness consisted entirely in words – pretty and, at least in connection with Christian witnessing, entirely false -- was not. Paul, who suffered martyrdom, was a witness to the truth. The bishop, whose rhetorical witness, uncrowned with the wreath of suffering, paled in comparison with that of the early Christians, was not.

Neda, an innocent victim whose blood was poured out, was a witness to the truth; Martin Luther King was a witness to the truth.

Witnessing can never be a passive act, particularly when one is witnessing injustice. Surely, that is what Martin Luther King meant when he said the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. One bends towards justice because witnessing injustice demands a response that is clear, unambiguous and virtuous. Words, in these circumstances, are valuable as a prelude to action. But if they do not lead to corrective action, they are worse than useless. One does not bend towards justice by impassively delivering pretty speeches from one’s easy chair.

To bend towards justice is to honor justice through virtuous action. Originally, the word “virtue” pointed to moral strength, manliness, valor and worth, from the Latin root “vir,” which meant “man.” The phrase “by virtue of” preserves the word’s medieval sense of “efficacy.” It is right action that bends the moral universe into a bow.

Nothing could be plainer than the truth: the withering away of jihadism in the Middle East is in the interest not only of the United States but of the Islamic and Non-Islamic world. That is a truth to which Obama has closed his eyes, because if the truth struck him with the force of a thunderbolt, he would be spurred to action – and action involves hard choices.

The palpable truth, Thomas Jefferson said, is that “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”

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