“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” —Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Like many Americans, I find the nightly news of late has been increasingly less palatable and more disturbing. I began formulating this editorial less than 12 hours after the Dallas sniper attacks on police officers, leaving five dead and seven other officers injured. The sniper suspect stated during a standoff with police that “he was upset about Black Lives Matter.” It was further reported that he desired to kill white people, especially white officers.1 I imagine this individual had reached some personal psychological tolerance limit with the ongoing deadly police violence perpetrated on black individuals, and the video of these incidences looped on the cable news networks as a poor excuse for responsible news reporting.
Before I proceed on this culturally and emotionally charged issue, I want to make something clear. I am not taking a position on the ongoing subject of race and police activity in this country. Each incident of the use of lethal force by police is a tragedy, and each incident must be dealt with individually and within the limits of the law. From my perspective, both sides of this issue have culpability in the violence that has been perpetrated, and both sides have legitimate grievances that deserve atonement. Furthermore, I see the Dallas sniper as an act of domestic terrorism, which is universally unjustified and ethically bankrupt.
Like Twain, I am curious at how violent displays of physical courage seem to be the predominate method today to resolve cultural and social differences in our society. These thoughtless displays of disagreement through violence are not limited to policing and race relations but are now all too characteristic of political movements, social movements, sports events and even the daily commute (road rage shootings). I am not suggesting that our present society has the corner on the “overuse of violence” market. American history, sadly, is a wasteland of savagery waged by one party against another based on some dubious moral position, concerns over skin color being perhaps one of the silliest positions. What worries me is, more than 100 years after Mark Twain made this rebuke on American society, it seems our culture remains chained to the idea that violence is an appropriate method to further a particular political or cultural point of view. In short, we have not socially evolved from this morally bankrupt practice.
What has changed is the efficiency (automatic weapons) with which we are able to commit deadly violence on our fellow Americans. Let us pause on the words, “our fellow Americans.” Putting aside your race, your sex or sexual orientation, the vanity in your perceived social class, and the illusion of the importance of your bank account, all that remains of importance is the fact that you are human, the content of your character—Thank you, Dr. King. —and the fact that you are an American. With so many people in this world loathing us and wishing us violence for the simple reason that we are Americans, it defies explanation why we are so busy killing ourselves.
Being an American has many significant advantages. We have a contract with our government that states we are all created equal. We are granted due process under the law. We have the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Mind you, these are not guarantees; they are a framework to make your own way in life while not impinging on the rights of others to do the same. As with any contract, there are provisions and responsibilities (laws) to which each citizen must adhere so we may all enjoy the privileges this society offers.
This takes a certain amount of moral courage by each citizen to accomplish. It means when you are wronged, you do not immediately respond with a physical act of violence but demonstrate the personal moral fortitude required to work within our system of laws to receive redress. The alternative only offers chaos, misery and death.
Our system of government has created conditions in this country that have facilitated the truly monumental accomplishments of our society. Recently, one of those accomplishments—placing a satellite in orbit around Jupiter, 2.8 billion kilometers away—was overshadowed this week by an individual who thought he was somehow being courageous by responding to perceived race-motivated police violence and completely violated the rights of 12 police officers, five of them permanently. Although race relations and excessive force by police is certainly an important issue, this individual did nothing productive to deal with this difficult social problem. Instead, he only broke the contract with his fellows Americans, committed an act of moral cowardice and weakened our society.
What does this editorial have to do with federal medicine? Nothing and perhaps everything, I would argue. There is no medical treatment for the moral failings highlighted by this sniper shooting or unjustified violence by police motivated by race. These are social ills for which we all have some responsibility, however. Every thoughtless act, no matter how minor, based on race, skin color, social class or any other nonsensical bias, sets the conditions for events like the Dallas sniper.
The benefits of our federal medicine institution can only be realized within a stable society. I would suggest that we in federal medicine have benefited tremendously from the society we serve, whether from our careers paths, educational and professional opportunities or the living standards we enjoy. We have a vested interest in working to maintain a stable society and uphold the tenets of the Constitution; many of us have sworn to do so. Society still holds our medical profession in high regard and looks to us as a standard bearer for moral courage. We should be mindful of this position and work to be worthy of emulation. We should strive to demonstrate in our daily lives and interactions with patients the moral courage which seems to be desperately needed by our American society. I cannot help but wonder, as Twain did, whether, if more Americans would strive to perform acts of moral courage in their daily lives, these acts of moral turpitude might become less common? Now that would be a story worthy of the nightly news.