One of the great tragedies of World War II was its utter preventability. In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler spelled out his objectives over a decade before Germany invaded Poland. The key elements of his rein — the German conquest, the distrust of Communism and Democracy, the scapegoating of the Jews — were all there in black and white for all to see, but not enough people bothered to read it, or take it seriously. Too many were convinced that Hitler could be reasoned with, appeased, that he was the sort folks could do business with.
Over 60 million deaths later, it was abundantly clear how wrong they had been.
The one lesson that should have been learned from that can be summed up in three simple words, one of the most insightful pieces of advice I’ve ever heard — apparently first a Marine Corps pilot, one Major John Christensen.
“Honor the threat.”
When someone who doesn’t like you speaks, listen. Listen very carefully. For they will often speak far more truthfully than they should. And it is the fool that tries to soften their words, who hears what they wish to hear instead of what is said, who searches desperately for signs of hope and moderation and peaceful intent when there is none.
You want an example? I’m feeling generous. I’ll give you two.
Iran is led by a Prime Minister who has a history of ordering and carrying out the executions of his enemies, both at home and abroad. He has been tied to the deaths of dozens, if not hundreds, of Iranian dissidents around the world. He has repeatedly proclaimed his belief in the Islamic version of Armageddon, has repeatedly called for Israel to be wiped off the map, and insists on unfettered research into nuclear physics — saying it is strictly for peaceful purposes, but meanwhile asserting his nation’s right to possess nuclear weapons.
Yet yesterday the New York Times featured a column by an MIT professor of political science who says that a nuclear Iran might not be such a bad thing.
Next example? Hamas has spent its entire nearly 20-year existence devoted to one goal: the destruction of Israel and the institution of an Islamist state over Palestine. Toward that end, they have butchered scores and scores of innocents. They have repeatedly, forcefully, violently rejected the notion of compromise, of negotiations, of a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They sole answer to all pleas, all appeals, all suggestions, is death and more death and more death.
And now that they have won a majority of seats in the Palestinian Assembly and are poised to take the reins of government, much of the world is convinced that this will finally bring them to reason and sense.
As a die-hard comic book fan, who in many ways was raised on superheroes and the ethos they espouse, it pains me to say this, but it seems to be true: so many people have completely twisted Stan Lee’s most profound observation:
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
To these people, that is prophecy. When someone suddenly finds themselves in possession of power, they suddenly find they also have a proportional sense of responsibility. That the achievement of this goal somehow sates their passions, and they suddenly have judgment and reason and rationality and a sense of obligation to not abuse their newfound potency. In a horribly misguided reversal of Lord Acton’s most famous observation, power does not corrupt, in ennobles. And absolute power is positively beatific.
Stan The Man didn’t intend those words that way. They were a warning, to those who seek power and possess a conscience. Seek power if you wish, but always be aware of the burden it brings. Keep a firm grasp on your principles, your beliefs, your scruples, your ethos before you achieve your true potential, because they will be assailed as never before.
Another great comic-book writer disagreed with Acton’s observation. Jim Shooter once had a character say that it was bunk; power is neutral. It simply amplifies what you already are. If you are petty, you become mightily petty. If you are wrathful, you will inflict that wrath on a much greater scale. And if you are strongly rooted in your sense of ethics and responsibility, you just might be able to resist the temptations and use that power wisely.
Hamas and the Iranian government have never shown any signs of moderation, of reason, of compromise, of being willing to be a part of the civilized world. They have their own selfish, violent goals, and have killed countless people so far in their quest. Now, as both stand on the verge of achieving their greatest acquisition of temporal power (Hamas, in cloaking itself in the garb of semi-statehood; Iran, in possessing nuclear weaponry), it is insanity to think that this victory will deter them from their long-sought and clearly-stated goals.
More than insanity, it is stupidity.
And in a world where stupidity is often a capital offense, it’s a folly we dare not risk.
They have spent decades making their threats, and are now on the cusp of being able to carry them out.
Will we honor those threats, or will we convince ourselves that they don’t really mean what they’ve been saying for so long?