While reciting Shema, one is supposed to reflect on one's readiness to give up one's life for G-d. Still, imaging martyrdom, no matter how vividly, is a far cry from our ancestors' life and death experience of their faith.
They lived with the constant awareness that they or their children would likely have to choose one day between their lives and their faith. That awareness gave an intensity to their faith barely imaginable today.
Jews are not the only ones whose lives have lost a certain heroic intensity. A foreign reporter told me on the day of the Iraqi elections that among her Harvard classmates in the early '80s it was a given that there is nothing worth dying for.
A sad observation that. For if there is nothing worth dying for, there is nothing worth living for either.
Post-industrial Western societies foster such unheroic attitudes. Their natural tendency to appease dangerous adversaries is the flip side of Natan Sharansky's observation that democracies do not go to war with one another because, given the choice, most people would prefer not to die.
Those whose freedom cannot be taken for granted, however, have no difficulty identifying ideals worth the risk of death. Eight million Iraqi voters did not just fear that there would be violence on election day; they knew that some -- perhaps many -- of them would die in the course of voting. Suicide bombers love a crowd, and there is no way to conduct an election without large numbers of people congregating in a small area. But they also knew that no people has ever won its freedom without the courage to risk their lives.
ADMITTING THAT ONE VALUES nothing beyond oneself threatens the favorable self-image upon which our emotional well-being requires. So Western elites have developed a series of gestures to signal their essential goodness -- a genre New Republic critic Lee Siegel labels the Appearance of Goodness. Above all, the appearance of goodness should not require great effort. The profession of correct values serves the purpose; the painstaking acquisition of particular virtues does not.
Not surprisingly, the opposition to war -- any war -- has become the surest sign of goodness. In a recent survey by the German Marshall Fund, 69% of Germans and 67% of French could not imagine any circumstances under which war would be necessary to obtain justice.
The appearance of goodness requires its own mirror image: the appearance of evil. Each person or political position must be easily identified as belonging to the party of virtue or the party of vice. Thus for opposition to war to signal goodness, it is necessary to portray anyone who dares assert that military force can be employed for moral ends as a warmonger, who relishes killing human beings.
Pursuit of the appearance of goodness, however, often leads to complicity with evil. Opponents of the war in Iraq or that in Afghanistan routinely cite the number of civilians killed as irrefutable proof of the immorality of those wars. That position lacks moral seriousness because it refuses to weigh the costs of no military action -- unless, of course, one believes, like Michael Moore, that Saddam's Iraq was an idyllic paradise of children flying their kites.
To acknowledge those other costs would force the paragons of virtue to confront the fact that they have made peace with the slice 'em and dice 'em approach of Saddam & Sons to thousands of political prisoners, with the gassing of tens of thousands, with the 60-70,000 Iraqi children who died annually from malnutrition and poor health care, while Saddam diverted billions in oil revenues to maintain his terror apparatus and build pleasure palaces, and with the short life span and house arrest of Afghani women under the Taliban. Nor should those free to say whatever they want to whomever they want so casually ignore the fear of ever talking openly to another human being that characterized life under Saddam.
According to the party of virtue, every American combat death and every Iraqi killed by a suicide bomber since the invasion must be added to President Bush's moral debit column. That scoring depends on labeling the alliance of jihadists and Baathists as "insurgents" -- the Iraqi equivalent, in Michael Moore's terms, of the American minutemen at Bunker Hill, and pretending that they would melt away if America decamped.
But has it not been obvious from the beginning that those whose chief tactic consists of killing as many Iraqis as possible -- to sow chaos and inflame Sunni-Shiite hatred, as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi wrote last February -- do not represent an indigenous uprising of the Iraqi people. The allegedly irreconcilable secular Baathists and Al Qaeda have allied to deny freedom to the majority of Iraqis and to wage "fierce war on the evil principle of democracy," in Zarqawi's words.
Too bad that those who lay claim to a monopoly on virtue, in order to hide the shallowness of their own commitments, could not celebrate with millions of incredibly brave Iraqi voters last week. They were too busy rooting for the "insurgents."