Asking, "What can I do?" Americans across the country have responded to the terrorist attack on America by donating blood, comforting the grieving, praying for the victims and their families and memorializing the fallen. In New York and Washington they have done more - much more - as best they could.
Now we are all called upon to do one other thing. It is our solemn duty, as the masters of this great nation, to determine its future course. In an age of complexity we have become accustomed to leaving decisions to the experts. But while the founders of our constitutional republic wisely framed a government capable of unified action by its leaders and experts, they reserved to all of us, its citizens the ultimate power to decide its fate.
Much of the commentary in the last few days has focused first on what the President and his advisors will do, second on how Congress will respond and then third on what the people will support. That is the precise opposite of how our Founding Fathers intended for our nation to respond to a challenge like this.
Rather, we must now, each in turn, do our duty - first the citizens by making our opinions heard, then the Congress by deliberating upon those opinions to formulate an expression of national purpose, then finally the President and our armed forces to carry out the national will to the best of their abilities.
In normal times, self-government is a right and privilege that we each exercise as we see fit by voting, or not, in elections and by communicating, or not, our views to our representatives on issues large and small.
Today, that right has become a duty. The obligation we all now owe to each other is simply to tell our representatives in plain terms what we want them to do as this nation's response to the attacks. The choices are all profound and they all have consequences, some of which we can, and some of which we cannot, foresee. But the choices, while enormous, are also simple, few and direct and none of us need be an expert to make them.
First, should our representatives in Congress, acting in our name, solemnly and formally declare war against our enemies? In other words, should they give the President a special and specific mandate for America's response? Or, should they treat this as part of the routine performance of his duties as Commander in Chief, delegating most of the decisions to him while reserving the right to criticize? The answer will give the world the measure of our intentions, public commitment and resolve.
Second, if we do ask Congress to declare war in our name, how broad or limited should be the mandate of the President and our armed forces? Should it be against only the specific organizations that perpetrated these specific attacks and the foreign governments that support and shelter them, or should it be against all organized terrorist groups and their sponsors? If it is narrow, the lesson for the world is that the United States will act only against organized terrorism that threatens it directly. If the mandate is broad, it will tell the world that the United States is prepared to lead the civilized nations in a determined, and if need be, protracted and bloody war to eliminate organized terrorism as an instrument of geopolitics. Again, either answer has grave and unforeseen consequences.
To govern is to choose, and self-government means that each of us owes to the rest of us a moral obligation to participate in making such momentous choices. "I abstain" may be an acceptable, if not desirable, answer to questions about day-to-day issues of self-government, but not on this great issue. It is now the duty of all Americans to counsel our elected representatives on these fundamental questions.
Once we have met this obligation we can leave it to our armed forces and their Commander in Chief to use their expertise and the nation's resources to carry the war to the enemy. Then, they and we will both know that they go into battle with complete clarity as to the scope of their mission and the extent of our support.
We must show the world that when the greatest republic in history
embarks upon a war, it does so by beginning with the first words
of its Constitution, "We, the people of the United States..."
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Edmund F. Haislmaier is a board member of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Comments may be sent to EHaislmaier@nationalcenter.org.