Be Not Afraid

To those that knew him well, John Bradley was a middle-American citizen whose soft hues seemed reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting. He spent the bulk of his life quietly raising his family, running a modest business in Wisconsin, and eschewing opportunities for attention and rewards, while earning the respect of his community. In an age that worships celebrity, it is hard to appreciate those who value achievement over self-aggrandizement.

Yet John Bradley was briefly a celebrity. The fact that few now recognize his name is a testament to how steadily and assiduously he worked at maintaining a conventional life. John Bradley was a medical corpsman in the Navy who was one of the six soldiers that raised the flag atop Mount Suribachi on the small volcanic island of Iwo Jima during the World War II. A photograph of the marines and corpsman tilting the flag into place instantly became a national symbol of courage and honor. Only three of six in the photograph survived the next few days. The US Government retrieved the three remaining “heroes” and used them to promote a seventh war bond campaign. Nonetheless, Bradley and the other survivors viewed the fellow Marines who were killed as the true heroes of Iwo Jima.

It is hard to imagine the courage, fortitude, and devotion that motivated the marines that captured Iwo Jima. Despite incredible losses, these men moved day-after-day rooting out an equally determined enemy who would rather die than surrender. It was a time when “uncommon valor was a common virtue.” The accidents of history asked much of what has been called the “Greatest Generation” and they responded.

It would be foolish to seek economic or military crises just to serve as a test of metal. We live in a time of relative peace and prosperity and this is certainly a wonderful blessing. Nonetheless, I have often wondered whether, if called upon, we Baby Boomers who have spent their lives basking as the center of attention, could muster the same courage. Could the D (digital)-generation the children of the Baby Boomers, pampered with the Internet and video games and mind-numbed by MTV, find the fortitude of their grandparents?

In a recent speech, the usually quiet Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas raised the possibility that we too face a challenge that is, in a different but important way, threatening to the nation. The fact that the new challenges are subtler makes them difficult to recognize.

Justice Thomas is worried that an undue emphasis on “civility,” toleration, and being non-judgmental has circumscribed rather then enlarged the scope of the vigorous debate necessary for a democratic society. Because the Left has effectively demonized legitimate positions on important issues, Conservatives censor themselves lest they be ridiculed and labeled as racist, homophobic, misogynist, or plain mean-spirited. The reactionary liberals have used this strategy to place their policy proscriptions outside the scope of legitimate debate. The tendency to bow to these pressures represents, according to Thomas, intellectual cowardice.

Justice Thomas’s comments can and will be deliberately parodied to suggest that Thomas is against civil discourse. Of course he is for civility, but not the false civility that degenerates into a dishonest modulation of ideas that obscures real and important differences. There are those who could say that Justice Thomas’s call for intellectual fortitude is somehow in conflict with President George Bush’s effort to return civility to political discourse. In reality, it would only be a contradiction if one constrains the meaning of civility to the narrow definition of silence or unwillingness to make spirited yet fair argument.

According to Thomas, “A good argument diluted to avoid criticism is not nearly as good as an undiluted argument, because we best arrive at truth though a progress of vigorous and honest debate.” Those who engage in “debates of consequence” should expect to be treated badly, but must remain “undaunted” in this pursuit.

Justice Thomas is a devout Catholic who has drawn lessons of courage and forthrightness from Pope John Paul II. The Pope has been a key figure in the twentieth century, helping to liberate Eastern Europe, consoling those persecuted in Africa, and calling upon the rich western countries to eschew a “culture of death.” According to Thomas, the common theme that runs through the Pope’s message is to stand up for what you believe to be right and most of all “be not afraid.”

Of course, we are all afraid. John Bradley was afraid as he landed on shores of Iwo Jima, pinned down by machine gun fire and artillery shelling. Eastern Europeans were afraid under dictatorial constraints of Communist rule. In a smaller, but still important way, Conservatives are afraid of the personal attacks that can come for standing up for certain beliefs. The injunction to “be not afraid,” is not an instruction on how to feel, but how to act.

Today’s challenges do not require us “to risk our lives against some monstrous tyranny.” Thomas tells us that, “though the war in which we are engaged is cultural, not civil, it tests whether this ‘nation: conceived in liberty…can long endure.”’ How we act now, whether we choose to “be not afraid” in the face of intimidation, will indicate whether we honor in a small way those who froze at Valley Forge, died at Gettysburg, or climbed the slopes of Mount Suribachi.

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