It appears that the American people are determined to remove all substance from political contests in this country and to fill them with junk.
The top news story in the Presidential race for the past two days has been retired general Wesley Clark's statement that, "I don't think that being shot down and being a prisoner of war is a qualification to be President," on Face the Nation
This is a worthless statement to spend time on. However, since the nation is spending time on it, I want to pull something substantive out of it. I want to look at the qualities that a President should have, and the qualities of being a hero. Over the course of this presentation I will argue that Clark's statement is true. However, I will go further and look at the criteria that is relevant to making these types of judgments.
The thesis that there is nothing in being shot down and being a prisoner of war that makes one more qualified to be President springs from the fact that being shot down and being held at the Hanoi Hilton was not an intentional action. It was not something that McCain choose to do. Therefore, it tells us nothing about his character or about the quality of the choices that he will make as President.
In general, we apply the principle that a person acts so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs. With this principle, we look at the intentional actions of an individual and, from this, we create a theory of beliefs and desires. We look for the set of beliefs and desires that best explains past actions. That theory can then be used to best preduct future actions.
We are constantly employing this technique. For each of us, a lot depends on doing this well. We use this to predict the behavior of our bosses and our spouses, to run our businesses, to negotiate with our neighbors, and to run political campaigns. From the first instant we lay eyes on somebody we look at their clothes and appearance. We see the way they have decided to dress and groom themselves as intentional actions that instantly lead to conclusions about what that agent believes and desires. From those theories, we begin to draw predictions of how that person will act in various circumstances (whether to trust them, or whether to run away).
Being shot down and being a prisoner of war is not an intentional action. It does not allow us to infer anything about the beliefs and desires of the agent. Therefore, it does not allow us to infer anything about how that agent will behave as President of the United States.
By the way, as an aside, the same analysis applies to those who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11 – at least for those who worked there. I constantly hear these people referred to as heroes. They were not heroes, they were victims. They made no intentional choice to put themselves in danger. Instead, danger came to them – unknowingly. If they had known what was going to happen, we can trust that few of them would have gone there. They were not heroes.
There were heroes at 9/11. Those were the first responders who entered the World Trade Center after it had been hit. These people performed intentional actions that put them in danger. This allows us to say something about the beliefs and desires of those people – and we find in them desires worthy of our admiration and respect – desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others.
Also, there were people who became heroes after the airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center. These were people who responded to the attack with action – actions that considered the well-being of others.
In fact, it diminishes the claim that these first-responders are heroes to give the term as well to those who made no intentional choice to face danger. When we give an honor to those who do not deserve it, we insult all of those given the same honor but who did deserve it.
The passengers who died bringing down Flight 93 are heroes. They performed an intentional action – an action that proved to be a benefit to others. We may cynically assert that they acted only to save their own lives. Yet, history has told us of great numbers of people who refused to act even when they were being killed off (or enslaved) in huge numbers. We have every reason to believe that in addition to any desire for self-preservation, these agents knew that if they did not act their plane would be used as a weapon against innocent people. The passengers of Flight 93 qualify as heroes.
Those who died at the Pentagon also belong in a different category from those who died in the World Trade Center. Military buildings are military targets. People who join the military are people who are willing to put themselves at risk for the well-being of others. The Pentagon is a military target, occupied by people who voluntarily accept risks to life and limb in the defense of this country. They get credit for that intentional action.
In this sense, the same is true of John McCain. For choosing to put himself in a situation where he might be shot down and held as a prisoner of war, he deserves our admiration and respect. However, he shares this right to our admiration and respect with every other fighter pilot who flew combat missions during Vietnam without being shot down. His intentional action was the same as theirs, and so the respect and admiration that is his due is the same as theirs.
The same applies, in fact, for anybody who joins the police force, fire department, search and rescue, coast guard, or the military. This act of joining is an intentional act that tells us something about the character of the individual – something positive – something we generally have reason to praise.
When a person puts himself at risk for the sake of others, and suffers a huge cost because of it, we owe him a debt of gratitude. If a person takes a risk for my benefit, and suffers as a consequence, then I owe him some form of compensation for what he lost. It would be selfish and cruel of me to simply say, "Thank you," and to walk off.
So, we do owe McCain a greater debt of gratitude than we owe to the fighter pilot who did not get shot down and tortured. However, this is not the type of debt that gives McCain any claim to the keys to the White House. It gives him a claim that we make his life more comfortable – a decent set of veterans' benefits that properly convey to these people that, "We are grateful for what you gave up and we are more than eager to share the burden." McCain has no right to point to the White House and say, "You owe me."
Yes, Mr. McCain, we owe you, but the White House is not on the list of things that you may ask from us. We owe that office to the person who will do the best job promoting the well-being of the American people on the whole, and in particular promoting certain values on which that well-being depends.