Column: It’s time for Americans to look in the mirror of history

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 8, 2002

Once upon a time there was a mighty nation. Its armies were more powerful than any had ever been before. Its feats of engineering and technology were amazing; it was a builder of highways and great cities. It was the one nation the rest of the world both admired and feared.

Starting from humble beginnings, having to fight for its independence from foreign tyrants, its citizens learned to mistrust leaders who claimed absolute power. They created a legislature and elected their leaders.

With political stability and economic prosperity at home, this nation gradually expanded its borders and sphere of influence until all of its neighbors were either conquered or had become allies. The rest of the world either kept its distance or respected its leadership. Although its armies were not immune to defeat on the battlefield, they never lost a war.

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During times of crisis, however, when enemies threatened the survival of their state, they often invested their leaders with nearly absolute power to wage war or negotiate for peace: temporary dictators. These leaders were only given this power while the crisis threatened, and were supposed to give it up when everything had been resolved. The system worked well for many years.

But gradually, the prosperity created by their mighty empire transformed the people themselves, leading to apathy among citizens, corruption in the ranks of politicians and civil servants, and greed in the hearts of wealthy businessmen. Extreme wealth and abject poverty existed side by side, while the middle class shrank. The ranks of the army were no longer filled through conscription, with all males expected to serve. Now professional soldiers &045; mercenaries &045; ran the armies of the republic.

Farms became larger and larger, with small family farms absorbed by huge plantations; the former farmers either became employees of faraway landowners or moved to the city in search of work. The economy came under the control of monopolistic businesses, with real competition nearly absent. Unrest spread. Convincing allies to remain friendly and keeping the peace on land and sea became more and more expensive. Taxpayers became unhappy. Open rebellion overseas became more and more likely.

Finally, some of the &uot;temporary dictators&uot; found they liked having nearly absolute power. They didn’t see why they should have to give it up. They and their supporters found that rule by a single individual, unfettered by laws and rules, was a far more efficient way to run a bureaucratic state, with interests and military bases spread far and wide.

And then along came Julius Caesar, and the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire.

There are eerie echoes of ancient Rome in our current situation. In my lifetime, several presidents have asked for and gotten absolute power from Congress when it comes to negotiating trade treaties and waging war. We control or consume nearly a third of the world’s resources. Our soldiers have been waging war around the world in order to preserve our way of life for nearly 60 years. Loyalty to the policies of the president is seen as patriotism, not loyalty to the constitution.

And now, under the leadership of George W. Bush, we are imposing a Pax Americana on the world. The new world order proclaimed by his father over 10 years ago is now an American order, with Washington taking charge of world affairs. We will decide who is a legitimate leader and which nations can claim the sovereign right to decide things on their own. We have proclaimed that, in actual practice, the world doesn’t need the United Nations or any other international institution, because ultimately, the United States government will make the final decisions about things that are really important.

There are some things about our situation that are different from that of ancient Rome. George W. Bush is no Julius Caesar. Our army is not filled with mercenaries. And we have nuclear weapons that allow us to destroy our enemies without ever leaving home. But the similarities are still eerie.

It’s a bold step into a strange new world. Are we ready? Maintaining the &uot;peace&uot; cost the ancient Romans first their republic, then their freedom, and finally their civilization. What makes us think we can do any better? Can we claim so much power without it corrupting our leaders and us?

David Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.