Saturday, September 8, 2007

Edwards' "City upon a Hill" terrorism speech

John Edwards recently spoke at Pace University in New York, laying out his strategy for combating global terrorism.

Among the wonkish (but smart) plans of establishing CITO (Counterterrorism and Intelligence Treaty Organization) and a "Marshall Corps" of 10,000 civilian volunteers who would work to alleviate poverty conditions, a Edwards struck a broader theme that reminded me of a speech given almost 400 years ago.

John Winthrop, a New England Puritan leader of the would-be Massachusetts Bay Colony, warned his congregants that the eyes of the world would be upon them:

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken...we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God.We shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us til we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.

Then president-elect Kennedy spoke with similar language in an address to a joint session of the Massachusetts "General Court:"

But I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier.

"We must always consider," he said, "that we shall be as a city upon a hill--the eyes of all people are upon us."

Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us--and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill--constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities

For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arabella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less awesome than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within.

Kennedy quoted Pericles' address to the Athenians, reminding them that they were a model for others, and to conduct themselves accordingly. America has forgotten this historic and sacred duty in the past seven years. We have conducted ourselves poorly, as reactionary thugs, not as visionary leaders. It's ironic that Reagan, the supposed hero of the Republican party, spoke of a "shining city upon a hill," yet his heirs have abandoned the responsibility that city entailed.

Edwards noted that the ideological war with Al Qaeda would be won only by convincing those in the middle of the ideological spectrum - and most at risk of supporting terrorism - that America offers a better, more hopeful vision.

Yet we also should have a broader, deeper goal—to prevent terrorism from taking root in the first place. Millions of people around the world are sitting on the fence. On the one side are bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and on the other side is America. The question is which way they will go. If they perceive America as a bully, it will drive them in the other direction. If, on the other hand, they see us as the light, the country they want to be like, the country that's creating hope and opportunity, it will pull them to us like a magnet.

We have to be that light again. We need to do everything we can to prevent this generation of potential friends from becoming a generation of enemies.

This speech was a big step for Edwards. His focus on poverty and his "two Americas" theme are undeniably important, but until now he hadn't made the case that that effort was important to middle class Americans, and not just on moral grounds.

In the years after the second World War, America was a visionary leader, extending a hand to the very societies we had vanquished, pulling them up and helping them to rejoin the community of nations. The Marshall Plan has had lasting impact, and it's no coincidence that Edwards named his civilian corps the "Marshall Corps." This is what America needs.

At the end of his speech, Edwards called on the students in his audience to dedicate themselves -- and make the necessary sacrifices -- to this broad, noble fight. Let's hope his words don't go unheard.

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