Can self-government survive these free people?

Tom West, West Words
Tom West, West Words

On Friday, we will be celebrating the 238th anniversary of the United States’ experiment in self-government.

It was an experiment then, and it remains so today, perhaps even more so. In many ways, we are testing the rule of law and the limits of self-government.

When an increasing number of citizens decide to shoot up schools, movie theaters or estranged families, one wonders what our Founding Fathers would have thought.

The big difference is that back then, the fragility of life was more appreciated. People understood that they needed to conform in certain ways or they would die. Society was formed for mutual protection from the dangers of the natural world.

Today, man’s hubris has taken over. Too many people believe that too many people exist. What’s one life more or less? More of us treat our lives cavalierly, substituting a moment of chemical pleasure for our long term good, willing to risk addiction.

More often we hear the term “suicide by cop,” and we learn of otherwise smart young people who idolize mass murderers and attempt to devise new ways to leave the world in a blaze of outrage, somehow seeing their lives as meaning something because they murdered a bunch of others on their way out.

We are experimenting with the limits. Can we tolerate such attitudes and still remain a free people, devoted to the rule of law?

Back when the nation was founded, society did not look for explanations as to why people committed atrocities against society. They didn’t let the person rot on death row for 15 years before executing him or her. They held a trial within a few months and, if found guilty, the person was put to death.

This was deemed just punishment under the theory that everybody wanted to stay alive. But today, too many Americans are living as if mortal life no longer matters to them.

Does anyone wonder if mental illness is really more prevalent today than it was in 1776?

Human nature does not change. Nutrition and overall living conditions are better. Today, we supposedly have improved ways of treating the mentally ill — we give them prescription drugs instead of locking them in a cage. But while historical evidence on mental illness in the 18th century is sketchy, the impression is that today more people are having trouble controlling the voices in their heads.

This has led to increasing numbers of people calling for taking guns away from citizens or even calling for more curbs on speech that some may find offensive.

The 1961 farewell address of President Dwight Eisenhower is most often remembered for this statement, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.”

However, Eisenhower had plenty more advice in that speech, including this passage:

“Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties. A huge increase in newer elements of our defense; development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research — these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.

“But each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs — balance between the private and the public economy, balance between cost and hoped for advantage — balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration. …”

“Down the long lane of the history yet to be written, America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”

As we offer good birthday wishes to all Americans this week, let’s also recommit to that sentiment. Our problems may seem unique compared to those of previous generations, but if self-government is to survive, we must confront them, and we need to do so out of mutual trust and respect, not out of hate and fear.


Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 616-1932 or by email at [email protected]