THE HEADLINE WORLD USES REGULARLY OVER obituaries, "Man knows not his time," comes from a sermon delivered at Harvard College in 1697 after two undergraduates broke through thin ice and drowned. Puritan preacher Increase Mather suggested that God sometimes lets us know what's coming but at other times mercifully does not, so that we "may with diligence and cheerfulness" attend to our duties, which we could not do if we "knew what evil times and things" are coming.
Many of us saw last month an example of God's mercy: a videotape of the smiling Columbia astronauts minutes away from death, diligently and cheerfully attending to their duties, not knowing what evil times and things were coming. The downside on that is that those who would soon die had no opportunity to prepare to meet their Maker. (That's why all of us need to be prepared all the time.)
The U.S.-Iraq conflict is not sudden. For 12 years Iraqi officials have done all they could to evade the agreement they desperately signed after their forces were routed in Gulf War I. For 12 months the likelihood of war has been growing, but Saddam Hussein (with the help of French, German, and Russian friends) thought he could avoid it. During the first 12 days of March the writing on the wall became indelible.
To all, that is, without faith in our contemporary mini-god, the United Nations. I met with three German journalists on March 6, and they still expressed belief that if the number of UN inspectors were doubled, we could be saved from war. They said the obvious parallel-UN today, League of Nations 70 years ago-was not being discussed in Germany, home of the beast whose aggression blew apart what had become a pitiful, helpless, champagne-drinking league.
Sometimes it doesn't matter how much time people have; the blind merely become increasingly blind. And sometimes it doesn't matter how little time people have before they face evil times and things: They nevertheless keep doing their duty energetically. So it is with a University of Texas graduate student, Mark Moody, who had to drop my class on Column Writing several weeks into the current term because his National Guard special forces unit is heading overseas.
UT is typical of big state universities in that its neo-Marxists see the Iraqi war as a great opportunity to rejuvenate the aging left. But when one professor orated about "Bush's mad rush to war," Mr. Moody, who is putting his life on the line, did not hesitate to put his academic career on the line by challenging the conventional campus wisdom. In an e-mail he distributed to fellow graduate students, Mr. Moody pointed out that the mad rush is supported by 16 UN resolutions; unlike the German journalists, he can see that the UN has become a joke.
Mr. Moody went on to point out that demands to change policy because of demonstrations across the United States are profoundly anti-democratic, unless we assume that the view of each marcher is more significant than the views of hundreds of nonmarchers. He acknowledged that bombing will probably kill some innocent civilians, but he pointed out the toll of life under a brutal regime with "no respect for individual liberty, human rights, or the suffering of the masses." Given that Saddam has already killed probably 2 million of his own citizens, the liberation of Iraq is likely to save many lives.
That's what we should focus on: the toll of inaction at this point. I and many others wish we were at some other point. I wish the British and French had not constructed Iraq after World War I by artificially uniting three very different regions. I wish that Bush 41 had not stopped the Gulf War after a PR-pleasant 100 hours, that U.S. forces had not permitted Iraq's military helicopters to quash subsequent rebellions in the north and south, that Bill Clinton had not diddled while Saddam burned his promises. Sometimes I wish that we did not have 250,000 troops assembled on Iraq's borders, so that any retreat now will leave the world's worst tyrants rejoicing.
But that's all prologue at this point. The battle against terrorism around the world must go on. Like Mark Moody, we should all now with diligence and cheerfulness attend to our duties, regardless of what evil times and things are coming.