Paying the piper

In the fairy tale about the Pied Piper, the townsfolk of Hamelin find themselves paying dearly for their lack of foresight. In case you don’t remember, in order to rid the town of rats, the townsfolk hastily enlist the services of the Piper, who, using a flute, entices the rats to the river, where they drown. When the townsfolk renege on their promise to pay for his services, he secretly returns to the town and lures their children away, who are never seen again.

As we consider the quagmire of Iraq, we would do well to remember this tale. In attempting to rid ourselves of the terrorist rats, the Piper has lured away our children and far too many of them are now gone forever. Simple and expedient slogans are no substitute for thoughtful reasoning, and our penchant for quick feel-good solutions only makes more of a mess of things. It’s possible to script a nice and neat story line with a happy ending for TV, but the real world is neither neat nor always pretty.

America continues to promulgate the fantasy that like God, we can make the world in our own image. Unfortunately, we often don’t live up to our own image, and that creates tremendous confusion. When we spend $900 billion dollars in Iraq and can’t muster the votes to spend $35 billion for uninsured children, our image is sullied. When we call ourselves the land of freedom, law and order, but authorize the detention and torture of people without resort to law or habeas corpus, our image is sullied. When we produce more greenhouse gasses than any other country on earth, yet refuse to sign treaties with other nations intended to help prevent global warming, our image is sullied.

It’s easy to blame one political figure or another for our mistakes, but this too is a simplistic view. The American people wield enormous power through their collective economic strength, but are unable or unwilling to mobilize to make that strength felt. One week of purchasing no consumer products except life’s necessities would shake the established order. Two weeks of the same would force the powers that be to pay attention. A month would bring the entire system to its knees. Polls say that over 60 percent of the population wants the war in Iraq to end quickly, but that sentiment is not having much effect. Despite the death of our children and the countless deaths of Iraqis, nothing changes and our comfortable life goes on as normal. We make no sacrifices like our parents did during World War II – no rationing, no draft, no towns emptied of men gone off to war. We endure instead a slow trickle of death, accommodating ourselves to whatever the newest script from Washington contains, hoping for a happy ending.

If the townspeople of Hamelin had been more thoughtful, they would have first asked themselves why it was their town that was plagued with rats. Addressing the conditions underlying the infestation might have rendered the services of the Pied Piper unnecessary. But the citizens wanted a simple and expedient solution, one that would not inconvenience them. They paid dearly for their selfishness, and as this awful war continues, we Americans must acknowledge our own selfishness and the terrible price we are paying the Piper.