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The Lessons of Machiavelli

How national security overrides pride and conscience.

by James Leroy Wilson
September 19, 2001

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The Lessons of Machiavelli_James Leroy Wilson-How national security overrides pride and conscience. If my manhood is questioned yet I still walk away from a fight, I am publicly humiliated but my integrity, the integrity of Job and Jesus Christ, remains intact. This is meekness, but it isn't weakness. If, for the sake of machismo, I decided to fight, I'd please and impress no one but myself and maybe a few other extremely shallow people. If, on the other hand, I'd shrink from a fight for fear of personal injury or of the humiliation of defeat, even though the fight would help or protect an innocent person, then either my guilty conscience would oppress me or my narcissism would condemn me.

The role of soldiers, policemen, firefighters, and others charged with putting public safety over personal safety only makes them professionals, experts at doing what, in a crisis, good people would try to do anyway. Their personal courage is attested to by their very decision to take such jobs. Even as virtue or religious faith and piety compels them to personal meekness, they can not and must not shrink from fights that protect the security of the people. Neither can the rest of us.

I write this as a reminder in crisis that our duty to our country and love for our God in our personal behavior is not always of the same character as the duties we must undertake to show love for our neighbors. Our love for our neighbors is best exemplified in that chaos I was hearing on the radio around 10am EST on September 11. When it sounded like there were some planes unaccounted for in the air, my judgment and those of almost everyone else, was to shoot those planes down, knowing full well that the overwhelming majority in those planes are innocent of acts that would normally justify such a thing. But if we had reason to believe there were unwitting and innocent passengers on a bomb set out to destroy the White House, the Sears Tower, or whatever, our obligation was utilitarian; we must kill them not because they are guilty, but to protect the rest of us. Moral protestations and moral arguments don't apply here; they are made by people who want to justify their philosophies before God and don't give a care about protecting actual human life. All of life must be other-centered because love is other-centered, not self-centered. My own condition, pride, reputation, or even opinions, should not be the governing factors of my own life. And as a morally innocent but murderous madman must be brought down by any means necessary, just as if he were a morally guilty murderous criminal, our obligations in public crisis is not to judge and punish others, but to protect ourselves even if that means killing some innocent people used as pawns by the enemy.

And when the "I" becomes "we," each of us should hold on to the same sentiment. Granted, the public's condition - the liberty and security of the nation's people and institutions - must be paramount. But we must not embark on more ambitious schemes; our patriotism must not be perverted into either nationalism or ideological fanaticism. National honor, credibility, or disgrace should not be prevailing considerations. Yes, these have temporary effects, but they are recoverable or easily forgotten.

This past week, much of the nation completely shut down, perhaps most symbolically by the cancellation of the National Football League's games over the weekend. We heard some initial protests that we shouldn't give the enemy the satisfaction of admitting that they could shut down the American way of life. Well, the fact is, they could and they did. We gave them the five days of victory. And our defiance to them was not that we pretended that life went on despite the disasters inflicted on us, but that we respect and mourn the loss of human life. That, in itself, shows the world who we are and who the enemy is. It is okay sometimes to back down. Sometimes it is necessary to back down. For the momentary desire of uplifting national pride is not worth it if it ends in failure. If the NFL declared the games could go on but logistics prevented the chartered planes from arriving on time and if too many fans are still too afraid to venture to a large population center like a city stadium. No, give the terrorists a week of celebration. They didn't earn it, they didn't deserve it, but they got it. That's sometimes how it goes in warfare, this time because their sole advantage is that they knew they were at war with us and we didn't.

Niccolo Machiavelli, in his Discourses on Livy, writes of a time when the army of the ancient Roman Republic was artfully deceived and surrounded by their enemy, the Samnites. The enemy gave the Roman soldiers the option of disarming and marching back to Rome in a humiliating fashion. Apologizing for a lengthy, two-paragraph quote, here is Luigi Ricci & E.R.P. Vincent's translation of Machiavelli:

But the Legate Lentulus said [Machiavelli quoting Livius:] "That for the purpose of saving the country no propositions ought to be rejected. The safety of Rome depended on that army, and he maintained that it ought to be saved at any price; that the defense of their country was always good, no matter whether effected by honorable or ignominious means. That if the army were saved, Rome would in time be able to wipe out that disgrace; but if the army were lost, even if they died most gloriously Rome and her liberties would also be lost."

This advice of Lentulus was followed; and the case deserves to be noted and reflected upon by every citizen who finds himself called upon to counsel his country. For where the very safety of the country depends upon the resolution to be taken, no considerations of justice and injustice, humanity or cruelty, nor of glory or of shame, should be allowed to prevail. But putting all other considerations aside, the only question should be, What course will save the life and liberty of the country?

The above passage, which I first read some seven years ago, changed my life profoundly; I felt like I finally understood the topic of politics which for so long fascinated me. We are not here to sacrifice our own or other people's lives to justify our pride, to hold on to our national ego, but would instead embark on any scheme to achieve or reclaim security for ourselves and our posterity. This and this alone, not class warfare, wealth redistribution, or legislating personal conduct based on religious scripture, can demonstrate an individual's genuine love for neighbors in a public fashion. Everything else is to put our own conscience or opinions over other people's lives and liberties, which is completely unacceptable. That is the thinking of our enemy.

If we are to win this war, we must all be Machiavellian. Seek our own security and liberty first. Don't kill others out of revenge, and don't let ourselves be killed for conscience. We must collectively decide with clear conscience and objective judgment, what is best for the life and liberty of the country. Then we must each, individually, commit to that decision with our lives, our property, and our sacred honor.

Sources: Machiavelli, Niccolo, The Prince And the Discourses. New York;
Random House, 1950.

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