Dear readers: Tom wrote this blog on June 21, before going to the hospital for his scheduled treatment, and phoned today saying that he is getting "very good care".
Daniel Ellsberg, who died June 16, is one of the true heroes of my lifetime. His courage in exposing the lies of the U.S. government about our conduct during the war in Viet Nam, followed by his lifelong commitment to continue to oppose war and promote peace, is a tribute to the highest value of conscience and true love of nation and truth.
What does it mean to be dubbed “the most dangerous man in America?” Dangerous to whom? The risks and consequences of conscientious whistleblowing increase the more the lies are denied and the coverups persist and harden. And yet if the "truth will make us free," as the saying goes, we need to especially and deeply appreciate those who free us from lies and corruption, who honor their conscience and are willing to face loss of employment, public censure, and often imprisonment as a consequence.
Daniel Ellsberg’s story has personal resonance for me. On my way home from India in 1967 in the midst of the war in Southeast Asia, I planned to visit a former roommate who was living in Thailand. Because his travel plan was delayed I had a half day to explore Bangkok, and I decided to visit the zoo. There I fell in with a young U.S. pilot on R&R, and as our conversation became more trusting he confessed to me that, in spite of Nixon’s denials, we were bombing Cambodia (which was later publicly acknowledged as true), and he was one of the pilots doing so. His conscience was deeply troubled by what he was doing, and he wanted people to know the truth, and he asked if would be willing to try to do so.
I was totally unprepared to take on such a task, of course, but when I got back to the states I kept being haunted by the young airman’s troubled conscience, and I never fully forgot his request that I help make the lies public. I never did try to address the Cambodian bombing issue directly, but my encounter in the Bangkok zoo initiated my deep subsequent years of anti-war organizing. I have come to believe that all war begins with, and are maintained by, lies, and I am ever more sure this is true. So Daniel Ellsberg’s courage in exposing our government’s duplicity about the Viet Nam war is quite personal and impactful for me.
What drove Daniel Ellsberg’s conscience? Conscience has been generally defined as an inner feeling or voice acting to guide a sense of the rightness or wrongness of one's behavior; it is a consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one's own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good. How are we to judge and act with a sense of moral rightness or wrongness, even amidst the complexity of upbringing and experience that forms our individual conscience? And then, as a matter of our integrity, we have to decide whether we have the courage to honor the guidelines of our conscience, especially knowing it will likely have costly consequences. This was the challenge Dan Ellsberg was able to overcome, and although we may never know finally what drove his conscience to act, we know his decision to do so.
Most of us do not encounter situations that demand particularly courageous acts of conscience. Yet all of us do regularly face quandaries about what is the right course of action in our daily lives. "What is the right thing to do?” is actually a conscious or unconscious question we ask regularly. And how do we know what is the “right thing" to do?
How we respond to our conscience is largely situational and personal, but it is helpful to have some general guidelines as references that may help to inform us. If you care to think about it, what are your touchstones guiding you own conscience? I personally have been helped over the years though an exercise in our Quaker tradition called “queries,” questions that are meant primarily for personal reflection on matters of conscience, that are regularly read in community as a means of maintaining the alertness of our consciences. Organized by categories such as Social Responsibility, we may ask, for example: "Do you uphold the right of all persons to justice and human dignity?" or Personal Conduct “Are you careful about the reputation of others?" Or Stewardship: "Do you try to protect the natural environment and its creatures against abuse and harmful exploitation?” If there is any credence to the comment I’ve heard that Quakers are often the conscience of the community, it may in large part be due to our commitment to maintaining a refreshed conscience that grounds our faith and practice.
Because matters of conscience are so personal, and are so often complex and unclear, or subject to feelings of hypocrisy when we feel we have failed to live up to our own aspirations for our consciences, we seldom speak of conscience. As uncomfortable as it may seem, however, it is a good discipline to examine our own consciences occasionally and to be inspired by those who act courageously on behalf of their consciences. Or perhaps we just need to give ourselves special credit when we also act courageously in good conscience because it hones our moral vision and sustains our integrity..