The snow fell softly as the skis swished silently through the deep green pines while the low winter sun suffused the slopes below in a golden glow. Deep and restful peace lay upon the land and I, like so many other Montanans, drank my fill of the rich and quiet beauty in which we are so lucky to live. Peace—such a simple word to say, and such a noble goal for society. Yet at this time when peace, tolerance, and generosity should be abundant, we are a society torn and fearful, and wondering when, if, and what kind of peace we will ever experience again.
Last week’s big news, of course, was the capture of Saddam Hussein. “We got him,” shouted the headlines, as intentionally humiliating pictures of Iraq’s bedraggled former leader were broadcast around the globe.
This week’s big news is raising the terror threat level from Code Yellow to Code Orange. In case you haven’t gotten the color codes by which we are expected to live our lives down pat yet, in plain old English that means we went from “elevated” threat levels to “high.”
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge says Americans should “go about our business.” But meanwhile, he is also telling us that the threats to our nation from terrorist attacks are higher than at any time since 9/11. The “intelligence chatter,” according to our shadowy analysts, also suggests we may be subjected to “non-conventional” attacks involving chemical or biological agents. Oh, and by the way, Happy Holidays.
Time magazine, getting in the holiday spirit, slaps three soldiers, in full camo and armed to the teeth, on its cover, proclaiming them Time’s “person of the year.” The incongruity between the Season of Peace and those who carry out the grim business of war is not lost in translation.
So here we are, having outlasted and bankrupted the former “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union, standing alone as the world’s sole remaining superpower. Yet we are spending more on so-called “defense” than any nation on earth…by exponential magnitudes. Our aircraft carriers roam the high seas, our satellites spy from the heavens, and our submarines lurk silent and undetectable off the shores of friends and foes alike. We still have thousands of nuclear warheads ready to unleash hellfire and total destruction at a moment’s notice. And our soldiers are scattered across the globe on every continent, in or around every country, securing, if not the peace, then at least their place on the cover of Time magazine.
Which brings us, of course, to the core question here: What kind of world and what kind of “peace” are we creating? As in Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” we are at the juncture where “two roads diverge in a yellow wood.” We, like Frost, are confronted with the choice of paths, knowing we “could not travel both and be one traveler.”
Our current path is well traveled. Like so many nations and empires before us, we are searching for peace and security through the colonial approach of force of arms. Using all the might at our disposal—and indeed, our weapons have the combined might to destroy the globe—we seek the way of the sword, intimidating those who would challenge us with utter and total destruction.
Twice in rapid succession, President Bush has thrown our country into unprecedented pre-emptive wars on other nations, while threatening many more. Bush’s so-called “war on terrorism” is global in nature we are told, wildly expensive as we’re finding out, and, if you believe those who crafted and launched it, potentially endless. We are also told that such efforts are absolutely necessary to “secure the peace.”
The evidence, however, does not seem to support the theory. The Code Orange warnings reflect an increased, not decreased, level of threat. Even as our carols laud “Peace on Earth, good will toward men,” we are a fearful, vengeful nation, bristling with guns pointed outward at “the enemy,” whomsoever it may be.
There is, of course, another way. Just as in Frost’s poem, there is indeed a path “less traveled” that might deliver us to a future of real peace—not the peace enforced by threat of arms, conquest, and control, but the peace born of respect and admiration, tolerance and humility, understanding and empathy for all our fellow travelers on the globe as we whirl through time and space.
Many will dismiss such thoughts as the outmoded thinking of sentimentalists longing for a simpler world. “Times have changed,” they will say, positing that if we don’t “get the terrorists where they live,” they will soon be coming to get us where we live. But that is far from new thinking; it is the primitive logic of the very old, very worn path that leads us where? Well, so far it is leading us to a loss of our basic freedoms, to being spied on by our own government, to massive deficits loaded on future generations, to an unconscionable loss of life, to the horrific maiming of thousands more, and to a Code Orange Christmas.
We’ve heard it all before: pound your “swords into plowshares,” “love thy enemy,” “thou shalt not kill,” and “the meek shall inherit the earth.” Indeed, we are celebrating the birth of Jesus, a man who expounded all those sentimentalist theories and who wound up nailed to a cross for his efforts. Yet, 2000 years later, he is still called the Prince of Peace.
We are lucky here in Montana. On any given day, most of us can walk to a quiet pine forest, stand on a windblown mountaintop, or lose ourselves in a vast prairie stretching from horizon to horizon. And we can find, for a moment at least, the deep and total peace of a nature that has no clue what Code Orange means.
Peace is still possible. But to get there, we have to take the path less traveled.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.