When I read, at Simple Justice, commenters’ rationalization of a grad student’s failure to act when he saw a ten-year-old boy being raped by a football coach—typical of which was this:
I would like to point out that Mike McQueary was a graduate student back then. Had he done anything more, his entire career would have been over before it even started, and the coverup probably would have still happened. I do not think it is fair to have expected Mike to destroy himself like that.
—this passage from The Princess Bride came immediately to mind:
Westley: You mean you wish to surrender to me? Very well, I accept.
Humperdinck: I give you full marks for bravery. Don’t make yourself a fool.
Westley: Ah, but how will you capture us? We know the secrets of the fire swamp. We can live there quite happily for some time, so whenever you feel like dying, feel free to visit.
Humperdinck: I tell you once again, surrender!
Westley: It will not happen.
Humperdinck: For the last time, surrender!
Westley: Death first!!
Buttercup: Will you promise not to hurt him?
Humperdinck: What was that?
Westley: What was that?
Buttercup: If we surrender and I return with you, will you promise not to hurt this man?
Humperdinck: May I live a thousand years and never hunt again.
Buttercup: He is a sailor on the pirate ship Revenge. Promise to return him to his ship.
Humperdinck: I swear it will be done. (to Count Rugen) Once we’re out of sight, take him back to Florin and throw him in the Pit of Despair.
Count Rugen: I swear it will be done.
Buttercup: (to Westley) I thought you were dead once and it almost destroyed me. I could not bear it if you died again, not when I could save you.
Count Rugen: (to Westley) Come, sir, we must get you to your ship.
Westley: We are men of action. Lies do not become us.
As a people, Americans’ response to wrongs and threats is not Wesley’s “death first!” but Buttercup’s “will you promise not to hurt us?”
We have become a Buttercup Nation. Faced with a government that wants us to surrender—to give it “unquestioning compliance“—our response is not “death first!” nor even “I’ll skip that vacation to Disney first!” (I can live here quite happly for some time…) but “will you promise not to let the bad men hurt us?”
(Yes, yes, you rush to send other people’s children to die in dusty mountains on the far side of the globe so that you can feel safer. Does that make you feel like less of a Buttercup?)
Take it, as the Founding Fathers took it, as an article of faith that governments tend toward tyranny. Tyranny is increasing in America.
It’s somewhat disreputable, on the internet, to draw analogies to the Nazis, but sometimes they are unavoidable.
(Juxtaposition via Freedom in our Time. Picture-of-the-year bottom half by Louise Macabitas.)
“I do not think it is fair to have expected Mike to destroy himself like that” is of a piece with “he was just following orders”: bad choices justified by naked self-interest. Self-interest doesn’t justify wrongs (let a man rape a 10-year-old boy? Death first!). It doesn’t justify tyranny. And it doesn’t justify allowing tyranny to go unchecked.
The Buttercups of America will come up with justifications for John Pike’s assault on peaceful protesters: the protesters were breaking the law, they will insist. What law? They were trespassing or they were not doing what they were told. This is an isolated incident, they will reason; as long as my loved ones don’t do whatever it was that I think those protesters were doing wrong, we’ll be safe. The police are on our side. We’ll do what we’re told, and we won’t get hurt.
We are still free!, they will cry.
You know who else thought they were free? The German people under Nazism.