President George W. Bush needs to cultivate sources of wisdom other than his extremist cadre of Pentagon and State Department advisors. Every Directed Studies and English 129 student is familiar with the plot of the Oresteia, the Greek tragedian Aeschylus’ immortal trilogy of crime, punishment, justice, and clemency in the name of peace.
The tragedy begins with the story of Agamemnon returning from the Trojan War to Mycenae, where he is slaughtered in his bath by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover. The second play in the cycle tells how Clytemnestra’s son Orestes is commanded by Apollo to avenge the murder of his father by killing his mother. In the third play Orestes is pursued by the Eumenides, the dreadful furies who punish the shedding of kindred blood.
Orestes finds refuge in Athens, where he is tried for matricide by a large court of Athenian citizens and jury established for the purpose. After a public airing of all the evidence, Orestes is acquitted with the deciding vote cast by the goddess Athena.
The Eumenides’ campaign of further aggression is smothered, because despite Orestes’ undeniable culpability, the need for peace supersedes the need for corrective violence. Orestes has violated a totemic law of civilization against matricide. The democratic jury of Athens votes not so much to exonerate Orestes but to keep the world from sliding back into primitivism.
The Athenian courts are thus established to ensure that Athens will never be seduced into a destructive chain of violence. They become a democratic check on the perilous vendettas of the few. This is a metaphor for the ushering in of civilization. The dawn of compassion is a symbol of Athen’s greatness.
Like Orestes, Saddam is a killer. He has committed unnatural crimes against humanity. At least for non-Western governments, the development of weapons of mass destruction and violence against one’s own people are the collective versions of ancient Athens’ kinship taboos. Like Orestes, Saddam has been duly indicted and duly ostracized.
Like the Eumenides, Bush has a valid claim on his antagonist. In 1991 Saddam’s secret agents plotted to assasinate Bush’s father. Like the Eumenides, there are public and personal reasons for Bush’s virulent hostility: Bush is driven not only to resist Saddam’s potential threat to America, but — as suggested by a story in last week’s Los Angeles Times — to sacrifice public blood by a private desire to avenge a crime against kin.
Like the Eumenides, Bush must renounce his valid claims in order to satisfy a larger principle. It does not take a knowledge of Kant’s ethics to see how a vote for preemptive war to correct unproved crimes is a vote for perpetual war in the name of terrorism or any other pretext, whether valid or not. In this dangerous, Darwinian environment, even America, with its many insuperable advantages, might not survive.
The annals of history are filled with great acts of war, but at every forward leap of civilization sits a great act of peace. A new book by Michael Mandelbaum about the great ideas of our civilization concludes that peace — not guns or trade or climate — was the West’s road less traveled by. The West’s crucial measure of genius was the understanding that, however reliably if stoked national spirits and spurred the advent of new gadgets, militaristic aggression was a diversion from progress. The good war was the exception, not the rule: the substitution of diplomacy for belligerence, and the dissemination of prosperity, not dog-eat-dog tribal values, underpinned the golden ages of Greece and Rome — the Age of Pericles and the Pax Romana. Of all great civilizations, the West has been the most powerful. Its unprecedented power is the might of knowledge, not of force.
If we have the courage to ascend from the valley of terror to the lonely heights of transcendent mercy, we will not only have protected our democracy (a majority of voters are now conditionally on the side of peace until Saddam is convicted by Congress) but have asserted our moral authority. We will see, when the history of the Iraq debate is written, that clemency is the supreme act of moral and political authority. It will spare American lives and Iraqi lives, a possible Middle East conflagration, and an untold multitude of regrets.
This time we do not have Athena to look after us. Our version of civilization will be tested in a moral wilderness. All we have is an oracle called the voice of history. We need to stop our ears to empty rhetoric and political banter before we can hear.
President Bush is right about one thing: we do not need allies. We do not need the consent of United Nations. It is time to take strong unilateral action. We will not ask permission or brook compromise — we must take the initiative and make peace.
Aaron Goode is a junior in Calhoun College.