As Congress starts to contemplate, then debate, and then decide whether or not President Obama ought to be given the authority to strike Syria for its brazen use of chemical weapons against its own people, leaders should look back to Rabbi Hillel the Elder to frame the question: "If I am not for myself, who is for me. If I am only for myself, what am I. If not now when?"
Then, they should look to America's own values for guidance.
It's America's values -- and their balancing act, a combination of altruism and self-interest that is classic to our history -- that can enable America and our leaders to do what's required. This hybrid choice is ultimately in its microcosm, the choice that neighbors make with neighbors, that service techs make with customers, and that strangers make with people who come into their path. Do I stand by or do something? Do I choose convenience or going out of my way? Do I choose individual freedom and happiness or living with responsibility to community?
My family experienced this tension the other day. A family friend had just passed away. The family needed friends around them to comfort them. The choice to my family and me was: Do we go about our business or help? Do we offer superficial comfort or go all out? We chose the latter, hosting them to meals and compromising a bit of our personal freedom, individual comfort and weekend downtime to help others. At the end of the time, we were exhausted but gratified. We had lived our values.
My family and I saw this tension in America five years ago when we traveled to eight cities across America to ask almost a thousand diverse Americans (including the homeless): What are the values that connect Americans; what do Americans stand for? Whether in Little Rock or in New York City, Americans referred to Equality, Faith, Family, Freedom, Love and Respect, Self-Expression, Doing the Right Thing, Community, Giving Back, the Good Life, Opportunity and Success.
The tension is in asking whose success, whose opportunity, whose freedom, whose community? Are we only for ourselves or are we for others as well?
America played out these ethical dilemmas by looking the other way to the abuses of slavery and horrors of the Holocaust. Presidents Clinton and Bush #1 grappled with these issues and chose military intervention when we were not directly threatened by the fighting in Kosovo and the invasion (by Saddam Hussein) of Kuwait. Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided against bombing the Nazi rail lines (a decision that destined millions of Jews to their deaths in gas chambers) and President Bill Clinton decided against assisting the Rwandan rebels, arguably enabling the slaughter of over 1 million Rwandans within one month. Both with Rwanda and the Holocaust, historians have not been kind to America and how we actually lived our values.
These are no-doubt hard choices, because our values do represent a dynamic tension between selfishly living the good life and selflessly helping the downtrodden and making the world safer. We played out this scenario, to great sacrifice and dismay, with fictitious WMDs in Iraq, but the difference now is that there is hard evidence that the Syrian government has chemical weapons and authorized their use against the civilian population. During WWII, there was equally hard evidence that Jews were being gassed, yet FDR didn't want to upset his other plans to save civilian lives.
How can America's values be our guide?
My immigrant friends refer to America's values as the inspiration for a decent world. They universally say that America is the world's moral conscience. They say that when America lives its values, the world respects us, and when we disregard our values, the world hates us. That's a lot to live up to, but that is the expectation of America.
What they don't realize is that Americans have always had this bi-polar relationship with our values, bouncing between the highs of altruism and love and the lows of self-interest and convenience. Freedom vs. Community plays itself out not just with our neighbors and friends, but on the world's stage, as well.
So here we go again, this time with Syria. Will we lead the world to prevent more chemical warfare, especially against innocent children or will we turn a deaf ear? Will we defer to our lowest values or lift up our highest ideals? Are we just about our community or do we live in the world community? Ultimately, what is America, just a country or also a high ideal?
Now it's Congress' turn to decide, but I think that our values have already spoken. The world is watching.
Purple America is a national initiative of Project Love/Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialog around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.purpleamerica.us.