Richard Reeves

A New Year of Moral Issues

LOS ANGELES -- The year 2003 could very well be one of the most important in American history -- and because of American superpower, it could be almost as significant in world history. An unashamed bleeding-heart liberal perspective of the United States and its opportunities and problems at the end of 2002 would focus on three issues -- moral issues. They are war and peace, health and sickness, and common decency.

-- America has reached an apogee of global power -- political power, military power and economic power -- and is now trying to figure out what to do with all that power. So far we are a stumbling, clumsy power, which was demonstrated dramatically in the last week by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in one of the most stupid declarations of war ever uttered by someone who has enough experience to know better. Rumsfeld's howl that the United States can sustain two small wars (in Iraq and Korea) and chase down terrorists wherever they may be is, in a word, nuts!

Presuming we have that much military power and public resolve -- and I do not -- the statement is stupid because it ignores one fundamental question: How do you keep small wars from becoming bigger? And how do you keep them short? How do you keep them limited? Rumsfeld, perhaps with the backing of President Bush, seems to believe that we have the capability to decide where to fight, how to fight and when to stop. In reality, that capability is shared with whomever we choose to invade.

Presuming no other countries are drawn into Rumsfeld's small wars -- and I do not -- wars last as long as the losing side chooses to fight. Didn't we and the French learn that in Vietnam? Didn't the Soviets learn that in Afghanistan? Didn't we learn anything about the security of our homeland from the failures of knowledge, intelligence analysis -- and smugness -- that preceded the "impossible" attacks of Sept. 11, 2001? Rumsfeld's grandiose rhetoric would turn the rest of the world into America's West Bank.

Let us hope that, in this coming year we, the people, will use our great freedoms to debate this overconfidence -- and consider the morality of using high-tech weapons of huge cost at huge distances to keep our professional warriors out of harm's way.

-- The United States' cruelty to its own people is unfathomable. The idea that in a society this rich, children are denied free health care is immoral. We are the only rich country in the world that does this. And now more and more, quality health care is being denied adults without cash on hand.

If a modern Alexis de Tocqueville were to explore the mores of Americans, he might start in hospital emergency rooms -- medical care for the poor -- and move on to the lines waiting at the prescription counters of chain drug stores. There is your middle class, albeit a more elderly slice of American demographics. He could look at the expressions and tears held back as people who have worked hard and done everything America could ask of them are told: "Your plan doesn't cover these. Do you want them at $300 for the prescription?"

Let's hope we will get to debate this, too, in 2003.

-- The fact that life is generally good in the United States, and that most Americans still do see the chance of becoming rich, has blocked or postponed debate on wealth distribution, particularly as it is affected by tax policy and government actions. I won't repeat the arguments and outrage I have spouted in bleeding-heart columns in 2002, but the growing gaps in the lives of Americans is a moral issue, too.

The rich get richer and the middle class gets poorer. Debating the morality of simple fairness should become part of the national discourse in 2003, but I doubt it will, if only because the government and corporations have become so good, and sometimes immoral, at confusing that issue for most of the people most of the time.

Americans have a gift for not seeing what they do not want to see. But perhaps eyes will open in 2003, as they did on civil rights at the beginning of the 1960s. The tide was turned then by the reaction of a president, John F. Kennedy, who desperately wanted to ignore the issue of segregation by race, but because of citizens in the streets, had to go on television one day in 1963 and say, in paraphrase: "This is not a partisan issue. This is not a legal issue. This is not a regional issue. This is a moral issue. .... This is a question of what kind of people we are."

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