Jewish World Review Sept. 28, 2001 / 11 Tishrei, 5762
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE Sleeping Bear Dunes run along the southeast shore of Lake Michigan. The dunes themselves are part of a beautiful little patch of wilderness that 30 years ago was on the verge of being swallowed up by development. Much of the credit for preserving the area belonged to Philip Hart, the Michigan senator so widely respected by his colleagues that his name is now on one of the buildings in which they work.
Toward the end his life, Hart reflected that when he first came to Washington, he had wanted to save the world. Then he realized he had better concentrate on saving his country. After a few years, he limited his ambitions to saving his state. "Now," he said, "I'm just trying to save the Dunes."
Operation Infinite Justice, as it was at least briefly dubbed, has a noble aim: To rid the world of terrorism. Of course, ridding the world of terrorism is an even more daunting goal than ridding America of poverty or drugs. (It is perhaps worth noting that America's politicians got into the habit of launching metaphorical wars at about the same time they stopped declaring literal ones.)
Some fundamental strain in America's political culture is attracted to the quixotic quest to rid the nation - and indeed the world - of all serious imperfections. It was to that impulse in American life that President Bush appealed when he quoted President Kennedy's promise to "bear any burden" and "suffer any cost" in the fight to extend liberty to every corner of the globe. Those words, which sounded deeply anachronistic before Sept. 11, seemed for a moment at least to take on new life, in the wake of so much suffering, and the pent-up national energies that suffering appeared to release.
Infinite justice is a concept that is normally relegated to the realm of religion or to utopian political movements (such as communism) that are clearly substitutes for traditional religious belief. Even the American legal system - the world's costliest and most ambitious - rarely imagines that anything close to true justice can be achieved by fallible human beings in a complicated world. Most lawyers consider a good day any on which even a little justice was done. Knowing how the world works, they realize it is generally best to leave infinite justice in the hands of God or his earthly simulacra.
It is true that Infinite Justice is only a name; nevertheless names help create the reality they describe, especially in the world of politics. When it declared a "war" on drugs, Congress passed laws whose explicit purpose was to make America a drug-free nation. In retrospect, it would have been far more sensible to attempt to lessen the damage done by drugs, while recognizing that drug abuse will remain a significant problem, rather than to commit the nation to an unattainable goal, the pursuit of which has done more harm than good.
Eradicating international terrorism is no more possible than eradicating illicit drug use or ridding America of poverty. When dealing with problems whose existence is rooted in the very nature of the world, realizing that these problems are not going to disappear in the foreseeable future is the beginning of wisdom. Only then can we begin to consider which measures are worth the considerable burdens and costs (which, despite JFK's stirring rhetoric, are not identical to "any" burden or cost) a meaningful engagement with such problems is sure to impose.
Philip Hart, after all, never did save the world, or the nation, or even his state. He did, however, save the
Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. Comment by clicking here.
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