Thursday, February 01, 2007

Oh, Gawd, it’s David Brooks again, writing about … … something or other. Then there’s Bob Herbert writing about an ongoing injustice.

After Vietnam, Americans turned inward. Having lost faith in their leadership class, many Americans grew suspicious of power politics and hesitant about projecting American might around the world.

The Vietnam syndrome was real. It lasted all of five years — the time between the fall of Saigon and the election of Ronald Reagan.

Today, Americans are disillusioned with the war in Iraq, and many around the world predict that an exhausted America will turn inward again. Some see a nation in permanent decline and an end to American hegemony. At Davos, some Europeans apparently envisioned a post-American world.

Forget about it. Americans are having a debate about how to proceed in Iraq, but we are not having a strategic debate about retracting American power and influence. What’s most important about this debate is what doesn’t need to be said. No major American leader doubts that America must remain, as Dean Acheson put it, the locomotive of the world.

Look at the leaders emerging amid this crisis. The two major Republican presidential contenders are John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, the most aggressive internationalists in a party that used to have an isolationist wing.

The Democrats, meanwhile, campaigned for Congress in 2006 by promising to increase the size of the military. The presidential front-runner, Hillary Clinton, is the leader of the party’s hawkish wing and recently called for a surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan. John Edwards, the most “leftward” major presidential contender, just delivered a bare-knuckled speech in which he castigated the Bush administration for not being tough enough with Iran. “To ensure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons, we need to keep all options on the table,” Edwards warned.

This is not a country looking to avoid entangling alliances. This is not a country renouncing the threat of force. This is not a country looking to come home again. The Iraq syndrome is over before it even had a chance to begin.

The U.S. has no material need to reconsider its dominant role in the world. The U.S. military still has no serious rivals, even after the strains of Iraq. The economy is humming along nicely.

The U.S. has no cultural need to retrench. Vietnam sparked a broad cultural revolution, a shift in values and a loss of confidence. Iraq has not had the same effect. Many Americans have lost faith in the Bush administration and in this particular venture, but there has been no generalized loss of faith in the American system or in American goodness.

There hasn’t even been a broad political shift in favor of the doves. The most important war critics are military types like Jack Murtha, Chuck Hagel and Jim Webb, who hate this particular war but were superhawks in other circumstances.

Finally, there has been no change in America’s essential nature. As Robert Kagan writes in his masterful book “Dangerous Nation,” America has never really been an isolationist or aloof nation. The United States has always exercised as much power as it could. It has always coupled that power with efforts to spread freedom. And Americans have always fought over how best to fulfill their mission as the vanguard of progress.

What’s happening today is just another chapter in that long expansionist story. Today’s debate in the Senate flows seamlessly from the history Kagan describes. Most senators agree that the tactical question of sending 20,000 more troops is not the central issue. Their core concern, they say, is finding a new grand strategy to stabilize the region.

Most senators want a much more aggressive diplomatic effort to go along with the military one. (If President Bush said his surge was part of an effort to establish a regional diplomatic conference, he’d have majority support tomorrow.) But they don’t question the need for America to play a leading role. They take it for granted that the U.S. is going to be in the Middle East for a long time to come.

When you look further into the future, you see that the next president’s big efforts will not be about retrenchment, but about expansion. They’ll be about expanding the U.S. military, expanding the diplomatic corps, asking for more shared sacrifice, creating new interagency bureaus that will give America more nation-building capacity.

In short, the U.S. has taken its share of blows over the past few years, but the isolationist dog is not barking. The hegemon will change. The hegemon will do more negotiating. But the hegemon will live.

WTF? I wonder what brought that on… Now we have Bob Herbert.

On the afternoon of Oct. 7, 1974, a mob of 200 enraged whites, many of them students, closed in on a bus filled with black students that was trying to pull away from the local high school. The people in the mob were in a high-pitched frenzy. They screamed racial epithets and bombarded the bus with rocks and bottles. The students on the bus were terrified.

When a shot was heard, the kids on the bus dived for cover. But it was a 13-year-old white boy standing near the bus, not far from his mother, who toppled to the ground with a bullet wound in his head. The boy, a freshman named Timothy Weber, died a few hours later.

That single shot in this rural town about 25 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans set in motion a tale of appalling injustice that has lasted to the present day.

Destrehan was in turmoil in 1974 over school integration. The Supreme Court’s historic desegregation ruling was already 20 years old — time enough, the courts said, for Destrehan and the surrounding area to comply. But the Ku Klux Klan was still welcome in Destrehan in those days, and David Duke, its one-time imperial wizard, was an admired figure. White families in the region wanted no part of integration.

When black students were admitted to Destrehan High, they were greeted with taunts, various forms of humiliation and violence. Some of the black students fought back, and in the period leading up to the shooting there had been racial fights at a football game and inside the school.

While the Weber boy was being taken to a hospital, authorities ordered the black students off the bus and searched each one. The bus was also thoroughly searched. No weapon was found, and there was no evidence to indicate that the shot had come from the bus. The bus driver insisted it had not come from the bus, but from someone firing at the bus.

One of the black youngsters, a 16-year-old named Gary Tyler, was arrested for disturbing the peace after he talked back to a sheriff’s deputy — one of the few deputies in St. Charles Parish who was black. It may have been young Tyler’s impudence that doomed him. He was branded on the spot as the designated killer.

(Later, at a trial, the deputy, Nelson Coleman, was asked whose peace had been disturbed by Mr. Tyler’s comments. “Mine,” he replied.)

Matters moved amazingly fast after the shooting. Racial tension gave way to racial hysteria. A white boy had been killed and some black had to pay. Mr. Tyler, as good a black as any, was taken to a sheriff’s substation where he was beaten unmercifully amid shouted commands that he confess. He would not.

It didn’t matter. In just a little over a year he would be tried, convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to death by electrocution.

The efficiency of the process was chilling. Evidence began to miraculously appear. Investigators “found” a .45-caliber pistol. Never mind that there were no fingerprints on it and it turned out to have been stolen from a firing range used by the sheriff’s deputies. (Or that it subsequently disappeared as conveniently as it was found.) The authorities said they found the gun on the bus, despite the fact that the initial search had turned up nothing.

The authorities found witnesses who said that Mr. Tyler had been the gunman. Never mind that the main witness, a former girlfriend of Mr. Tyler’s, was a troubled youngster who had been under the care of a psychiatrist and had a history of reporting phony crimes to the police, including a false report of a kidnapping. She and every other witness who fingered Mr. Tyler would later recant, charging that they had been terrorized into testifying falsely by the police.

A sworn affidavit from Larry Dabney, who was seated by Mr. Tyler on the bus, was typical. He said his treatment by the police was the “scariest thing” he’d ever experienced. “They didn’t even ask me what I saw,” he said. “They told me flat out that I was going to be their key witness. ... They told me I was going to testify that I saw Gary with a gun right after I heard the shot and that a few minutes later I had seen him hide it in a slit in the seat. That was not true. I didn’t see Gary or anybody else in that bus with a gun.”

Mr. Tyler was spared electrocution when the Supreme Court declared Louisiana’s death penalty unconstitutional. But in many ways he has in fact paid with his life. He’ll turn 50 this year in the state penitentiary at Angola, where he is serving out his sentence of life without parole for the murder of Timothy Weber.


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