When I’m disoriented by the pressure of immense events, my tendency is to defer to someone whose moral authority is beyond question. These people are in pitifully short supply. But certainly Nelson Mandela qualifies–a man in his 80s with no more deals to make except his final peace with God, a man who spent the best years of his life as a political prisoner and emerged as the leader of a morally inevitable revolution that changed not only Africa but the basic assumptions of the human race.

If we can’t admire Mandela, then whom? Jesse Helms did not admire him, and it’s a stern measure of the moral bankruptcy of Jesse’s life. What does Nelson Mandela have to say to us, citizens of the United States of America, at this critical moment in our history?

“One power, with a president who has no foresight and cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust.”

This old warrior is not mincing words. It’s little comfort to read European newspapers and the World Press Review and realize that an overwhelming majority of the articulate world–statesmen, poets, journalists, clergymen–endorses Mandela’s misgivings with interest. It’s not an irresponsible generalization to say that the community of nations, representing 90-plus percent of the earth’s population, rejects our government’s argument that Iraq must be invaded–and fears George W. Bush far more than it fears Saddam Hussein.

If there is any such thing as “the court of world opinion,” it has heard our argument and ruled against us. It goes without saying that many of these nations have no use for each other. They form no coalition and hold nothing in common except their desire to survive. Is it possible to declare their almost unanimous opposition irrelevant–to disown Thomas Jefferson’s belief in “A decent respect to the opinions of mankind”? Would anyone this side of Joseph Stalin presume to do so?

This is the loaded question Americans are asking themselves, and millions of them answered it by standing in the streets, in some of the worst February weather on record, to protest a war in which no shot had yet been fired. Yesterday there were several dozen protesters in front of the courthouse in the village of Hillsborough, where I live–a mix of high school students and gray-haired citizens who have walked this path before, when Vietnam divided this country as it has not been divided since, until now.

Call me a sentimental patriot, but I noticed several faces of a shrewd, honest American type that Norman Rockwell would have relished. Icons, to me–faces that remind me of times in England, France, Germany and the Soviet Union when this country was criticized and I tried to explain to skeptical Europeans that there is still a great heart in America, an abiding generosity and openness of spirit, above all a sense of fair play, an indigenous distaste for bullies and liars.

One face reminded me of Philip Berrigan, who died last year in the midst of all this belligerence and terror. His life of pacifist sacrifice ended, like so many other lives, to the beat of the war drums. Father Berrigan was a devout Christian and a great patriot; “for God and country” is the first war cry a child reader encounters. What does the child make of the fact that Berrigan’s church abandoned him and his government imprisoned him repeatedly? And it’s no child’s conundrum to consider that Berrigan’s life of principle and unswerving moral commitment was a path to solitary confinement, while George Bush’s life of self-indulgence, expediency and careless opportunism was a path to the White House.

I looked at the faces in front of the courthouse and thought of my afternoon with Berrigan in his jail cell in Edenton. The president looked at millions of the same faces and declared them of no consequence, or of no more consequence than the disapproval of the anxious human race beyond our borders. And he added, unctuously, that he was fighting for our right to protest.

Protesters know it’s imperative to march now, while The Great Gun, loaded and primed, still rests in its holster. Experience tells us that once American blood is shed, it makes no difference if the mission is shameful or preposterous–the ranks of the war party will be swollen by tens of millions of battlefield patriots incapable of the distinction between “supporting our troops” and supporting political hoodlums who purchase credibility with soldiers’ blood.

War trash

War fever is a disease like gambling, an infection that seems incomprehensible if you happen to be immune. Legions of citizens, and not all of them moronic, go into a brain-numbing trance when the eagle screams and the trumpet sounds. People who actually fought in a war are the least susceptible. Some of us inherit immunity; our parents teach us that it’s no hero who marches whichever way the arrow may be pointing, no patriot who casts his lot with any gang of desperadoes who momentarily steer the ship of state. And “desperadoes” is not a strong word, in this winter of anguish, for the war trash whose smug and hideous certainty is inviting Armageddon and tearing this country apart.

The Vietnam debacle reflected the national neurosis of the day, the communist lurking behind every tree. It was a bipartisan folly, tarnishing two political parties that were in those days much closer in their aims and beliefs. It was a bitter learning experience for a country too sure of its power. Democrat or Republican, we suffered, we quarreled, we learned together. But what George Bush has assembled for his war on Iraq is a rogue’s gallery of all the discredited adventurers and right-wing ideologues who have resolutely failed to learn.

Does Middle America in its endemic amnesia know who they are, the architects of the new foreign policy that appoints the United States judge, jury and executioner of nations? Does it recognize the names Perle, Abrams, Reich, Rumsfeld, Noriega, Poindexter, et al., as the same names we heard during the Iran-Contra scandal, the names of men who skirted high treason and long prison sentences and seemed to have ended their careers in disgrace? Of all Iran-Contra’s major players, it seems that only the convicted bag man, Ollie North, has failed to find work in the new Bush administration–and the last time I saw Ollie he was filling in for Geraldo Rivera on its media subsidiary, Fox News.

This resurrection is not something I could have predicted. Like many others, I was reassured by people who knew George W. Bush way back when, who offered the class argument that at heart he was an Ivy League moderate, an affable political prostitute like his father, in no way a true believer in the spooky cult of extremists and fundamentalists the Republican Party is becoming. When you considered that his alleged election was something between a fluke and a coup, you expected some humility, some caution, some spirit of compromise.

What he gave us instead is the Revenge of the Rabid Right, the Return of the Frozen Cold Warriors, the Jihad of the Petroleum-Deprived. With the Sept. 11 massacre as a license to roll, George Bush is like the triumphant colonel in a banana republic coup, perched on a tank sniffing cordite, feverish to elevate all his friends and destroy all his enemies before the next wave of revolution replaces him. By reputation the blandest and least inspired of politicians, he has recruited an army of misbegotten zealots and launched what some wry historian will call the Tenth Crusade.

Though I believe that oil and Texas testosterone are the key ingredients in the march to Baghdad, it’s the religious rhetoric that frightens me most, that seems most likely to set this planet on fire. In North Carolina, the Guilford County Republican Party linked its Web site to a Christian hate site that calls Islam “a false religion … nothing more than a barbaric occult (sic) invented by savages for savages.” Among more influential Christian idiots, evangelist Franklin Graham called Islam “evil and wicked,” and five people were killed in a riot in Bombay after Jerry Falwell called Muhammad “a terrorist.” A book endorsed by leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention vilifies Muhammad as “a demon-possessed pedophile.”

The crude language of holy war, in the mouths of men who can fill churches and stadiums, may be our most disgusting, dangerous, retrograde religious disturbance since the Salem witch trials. A fundamentalist leader recently greeted the president as “our brother in Christ.” Imagine how that would torment the Founders, those Enlightenment sages who believed that an unbreachable firewall between church and state was the cornerstone of democracy.

An equally alarming regiment of the president’s war party is made up of bellicose pro-Israel extremists, prominent now in the State and Defense departments and in the op-ed arena. Many seem far more committed to the best interests of Israel, as they see them, than to the best interests of the United States. Appalled when the screeching bloodhawk Charles Krauthammer challenged him, “Are you in the trenches with us or not?” British scholar Timothy Garton Ash, writing in The New York Review of Books, used the word “Likudists” to characterize the hydrophobic columnist and his ferocious cohorts. Ash knew that someone would call him anti-Semitic anyway, but “Likudist” delicately separates the Krauthammers and Wolfowitzes from sane American Jews who oppose the war and Israeli Jews who oppose Ariel Sharon.

Religious convictions bring peace to individuals and wars to the world; when the terrorist bin Laden cut to the heart of America with his suicide bombers, he revealed, to his satisfaction, that a lot of Americans are a lot like Osama. Strip the mask of tolerance and benevolence from the bleeding superpower and a great bawling, bigoted bully emerges. A keen sorrow of the months since 9-11 has been watching Bush and company prove that the butcher bin Laden, in hell or in hiding, is no mean judge of national character.

No one absorbing all this rhetoric with sober detachment can honestly maintain that Saddam Hussein is a threat to the United States–or a greater threat than any hostile (or friendly) state with one determined citizen who can hijack a jetliner or build a bomb. It makes only slightly less sense to bomb Britain, where al-Qaeda cells are acknowledged, than to bomb Iraq where none have been found. There is no logical connection between Saddam and Sept. 11. The emergence of a nuclear and defiant North Korea turns the Iraqi imperative into stumbling farce. This war is, as many have observed, a flagrant case of bait and switch, where American rage at an invisible enemy has been diverted to an enemy who cannot hide. My own opinion is that the only Saddam who would try to destroy Israel–a suicidal act assuring his own death and the devastation of Iraq–is a desperate, cornered Saddam of last resorts, the Saddam George Bush seems driven to create.

Inciting terrorism

Considering the national paranoia, and the obsessive way this war has been sold to Americans, it encourages me that polls find only 54 percent who support it, and only 34 percent if the United Nations fails to approve. Should Bush launch this thing–and who can stop him if he insists?–he’s on the path that has seduced every arrogant warlord since Attila, a path where America will find no true friends, no allies and no admirers, only sycophants scheming for handouts and concessions. Islamic terrorists, secretly applauded by half the world, will come at us relentlessly. If your daughter loses her legs next year in the Munich airport, it will be Paul Wolfowitz, not Saddam Hussein, that you have to thank.

We will have squandered 50 years of moral capital in the blink of an eye. What becomes of the United States, so notoriously self-righteous, when it muddles on without respect, without credibility, with no diplomatic assets except fear and firepower? Iraq is the lethal precedent that leads to a lonely future, a long bleak siege for the Fortress of Democracy. So much has been lost already.

We are deeply divided, along fault lines that are not always clear to me. Where I see a petulant Uncle Sam sinking up to his tailcoat in the raw sewage of hypocrisy–bellowing, clutching his little flag in one hand and his little cross in the other–my neighbor may see the righteous wrath of a great nation wounded. Where I see the most cynical of domestic politics driving a suicidal foreign policy, editors who ought to know better claim to see strong leaders and American idealism in action. It makes me sick at heart to see liberal newspapers, like The News & Observer, slowly caving in to war fever, running ever more columns, cartoons and editorials that cast Saddam as the Antichrist.

More than 80,000 Iraqi civilians died as a result of our limited “surgical” strikes during the Gulf War. This time the Pentagon plans to hit Baghdad with 800 cruise missiles in the first 48 hours. If you saw Dresden after the firebombing, Hiroshima after the fireball, perhaps you can imagine the effect. Otherwise you cannot. I believe that anyone who supports such an attack–on a country that has not attacked the United States (or anyone, recently)–is in some sense clinically insane. Anyone who orders the attack is close enough to an Antichrist to suit my limited secular specifications.

If we are not now at the mercy of the least rational, least humane, least responsible pack of yahoos who ever seized control of the American war machine, then I have learned exactly nothing in 35 years as a professional observer. A friend of mine, a veteran centrist congressman, admits to the most “personal antipathy” he has ever felt toward an occupant of the White House.

Where are we wrong here, what have we missed? Even if you look away from the war, this administration is like a black hole for all progressive programs, ideals and aspirations. Environmentalists are already using Mandela’s word, “holocaust,” to describe the administration’s reckless assault on America’s wilderness and its natural resources. Civil libertarians are moved to equal hyperbole, and to tears, by a fundamentalist attorney general who is indifferent to due process and overrules federal prosecutors to promote capital punishment. Economists predict financial catastrophe in a $50 billion war flanked by deep tax cuts for the rich and a new indifference to deficits, violating the most sacred Republican tradition. International treaties are shredded, social services are slashed, the arts are defunded–and all the trembling public hears is “Saddam, Saddam.”

Is this anyone’s cherished vision of America? Did those explosions in New York bring an end to 200 years of flawed but contagious idealism? I have to assume that most Republicans aren’t grim predators, or monomaniacs with one fixed political idea like protecting handguns, executing abortionists or defeating Charles Darwin. I ask them, not innocently but not rhetorically either–I’d sincerely love to know–is this what you had in mind when you voted for this man? Would you do it again?

Rejected for various sins by the left, right and center, I’ve never been a member of any political party. I never defend the Democrats. The only reason to vote for Democrats is the Republicans–and lately that’s the best reason in the world. When I saw a sign outside Titusville, Fla., that read “Thank the Lord for George and Jeb Bush,” followed by another that read “Jeb in 2008,” I couldn’t help calculating whether I was too old to emigrate, whether Norway or Portugal might be somewhere in my future.

The impulse was new to me. It hurts when your country shames you, hurts even more when it disgusts you. Yet we are, thank God, divided, and I hold out hope for the 54 percent who support the president and his crazy war. Maybe they’re a soft majority, packed with bewildered, embarrassed citizens who cling to their party right or wrong. Remember that being a Republican is not the same as being a Korean or a Lapp. You can grow out of it. You can change, without surgery even.

I remember another war, and the year 1972, when my brother (just home from the 101st Airborne in Vietnam), my father (the county Republican chairman) and I all cast our votes against the war, for George McGovern. It was the first time in 100 years, since the first ones arrived from the old country, that any Crowther had voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. We were never sorry, and we never looked back.