Sometimes it seems that self-control in America is like the hats that men wore in old movies -- a habit from a distant time. Last week, we got object lessons in how destructive self-indulgence can be, from the deadly rampage of Seung-Hui Cho to the nearly treasonous irresponsibility of Harry Reid. What this country needs more than anything is a good dose of personal repression.
At Virginia Tech, Cho finally acted on his lunatic megalomania, making the campus his personal killing field in retribution for the imaginary hurts the world had inflicted on him.
Cho was the son of South Korean immigrants of modest means. His parents struggled, but they worked hard and obeyed the law, in the tradition of striving immigrants to America. Cho's sister, Sun-Kyung Cho, has made the most of the opportunities America offered. She graduated from Princeton and now works for a U.S. State Department contractor involved in overseeing American aid for Iraq. It took not even one whole generation for a member of this family to develop a promising career working with one of the primary institutions of American power. Her children, one assumes, will have even greater access to the opportunities afforded by such freedom.
Seung-Hui Cho took that same freedom and expended it on self-pity, and eventually on guns and clips. Yes, he was mentally ill, and yes, he should have been institutionalized and this massacre prevented. Many Americans will sympathize, though, with the words of his grandfather back in South Korea: "Son of a bitch. It serves him right he died with his victims."
While Virginia Tech was trying to recover from Cho, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was saying "this war is lost," in reference to Iraq. This when Congress and the president are trying to come to an agreement over funding for the troops -- funding that the Democrats want to attach to a withdrawal timetable, which the president and his allies, for all of their failures, rightly consider a surrender timetable. Now Reid comes out and says the war is lost anyway. Reid's statement should make him infamous among those who care about the fate of American men and women in combat. You don't have to attend a war college to know that political leaders don't hand the enemy public bouquets like this, whatever their private feelings may be.
Where the Iraq war is concerned, self-control in expressing one's views has never been held in high regard, even at the beginning. Talk of a quagmire started before our troops even made it to Baghdad, and once the insurgency began, so did the talk of defeat. Reid's statement also seems like a convenient stalking horse for the Democratic presidential candidates, allowing them to stop short of declaring defeat in such naked terms, since he has already done it for them. The candidates can continue with their winking suggestion of "redeployment," but Americans should not be fooled by the euphemisms.
Yet one group of Americans continues to show the most remarkable self-control, and in the most daunting conditions -- our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only do they face dangers that we cannot imagine, they are held to higher standards in dealing with those dangers than the rest of us are in getting to the office on time. They are expected, in the midst of supreme violence, to maintain self-discipline and adhere to strict rules of engagement that often leave them at a disadvantage against an enemy for whom there are no rules. They are expected to befriend Iraqis whose sympathies they can never be quite sure of. And they are expected to use force directly proportional to the force used against them, and not one iota more.
Here at home, we have nearly infinite patience for the wounded psyches of adolescents. When they "act out," as the Columbine killers or Cho did, we hear a lot about bullying in school and the crucible of adolescent life in America (the greatest paradise ever imagined for adolescents, but never mind). Even when the 9/11 killers struck, we were reminded to "teach tolerance" in our schools, as if the hijackers had attacked us because we're too judgmental.
But when our armed forces are judged to have misapplied their rules, or perhaps exceeded proportionate force after months of stress, suicide attacks, and witnessing the deaths of their comrades, how do we treat them? We prosecute them, of course.
It says a lot for the military leaders we have that our troops have maintained morale and performance under the combat conditions they face, in addition to the often-dispiriting political news. Nevertheless, what a kick in the gut to be reminded that back home, freedom is so often used so poorly.