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David Walters 

The Pen and the Sword

The Magna Carta lay just three feet away. To my left was Shakespeare's First Folio from 1623. To my right was a Gutenberg Bible (1455), the Lindisfarne Gospels, a beautiful illustrated manuscript from the year 710, and just beyond, the Codex Sinaiticus the earliest known version of the Gospels, dating from about 350AD. And in front of me I deciphered the immortal words "I wanna hold your hand." I was standing before the glass case devoted to The Beatles in the permanent exhibition gallery in the great new British Library in London, a repository of learning covering two millennia. The building, designed by the distinguished English architect Colin St.John Wilson, and finished just a few years ago, is brilliant. But even more fabulous are the artifacts within.

The original Beatles lyrics, written by Lennon and McCartney on scraps of paper and backs of envelopes, provide a delightful post-modern moment in the exhibition, juxtaposed as they are with great documents from religious and secular history. In a thousand years they may be venerated as we today revere the Magna Carta.

Judged by visual and literary criteria, this momentous charter is disappointing. It contains little more than a series of detailed points of feudal law that are more or less meaningless today to all but specialized scholars. However, buried in the verbiage -- clauses 39 and 40 to be exact -- are constitutional principles of immense significance: the power of the King could be limited by written statutes.

In a time of civil unrest in England during the reign of King John (the arch-nemesis of Robin Hood), the leading nobles of the land essentially forced the king to sign a document which, in its two most famous clauses, provides constitutional defense against arbitrary and unjust rule. They express some of England's most deeply held political beliefs, and form the basis for such fundamental legal privileges as trial by jury, equality before the law, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and parliamentary control of taxation. It is a document without which the US Constitution could not have been written.

Translated from the Latin, the crucial paragraphs read:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights and possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of standing in any other way, nor will we proceed by force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.

To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

I sought solace among the great words from history as the first bombs dropped on Afghanistan. Although in London life goes on much as normal, Britain is on high alert given its role as junior partner in America's offensive against the Taliban. Tony Blair enjoys popularity ratings that match Winston Churchill's during World War II. The British government has provided more information to the public than has the Bush administration, and there is a national mood of grim acceptance of a nasty and difficult task that has to be faced and accomplished.

There is great sympathy for America and Americans at this time of crisis, but this is tinged with a sense that perhaps now Americans will understand what it's like to live in the real world outside the illusory "Fortress America." This is a world that European democracies and their citizens have been living with for decades -- the sense of ever-present terrorism, and the possibility (however slight) that if you go out to a crowded pub on a Friday night you might not come back.

America is indeed an important part of global politics and culture. However, one of the most disappointing strands of the current unfolding drama has been the emergence of a brash and bullying tone in popular and political opinion. By dividing the world into "us and them," President Bush has unwittingly played directly into the hands of Osama bin Laden and his evil cohorts. The world of "real politik" is muddied with gray areas, of policies and deals that are pursued for pragmatic ends rather than principled ones, and to succeed in this effort we will have to deal with people we don't like and who don't like us. To demonize them at the outset is counterproductive.

During the opening days of the conflict, the British press found it easy to take texts from Washington and from bin Laden and point out similarities of hard-line fundamentalist thinking, with American words easily used by Islamic propaganda as fodder to fuel the jihad. Even Blair's political charm offensive with Muslim leaders has failed to secure the moral high ground for the allies. British commentators agree, glumly, that at this stage the West is losing the propaganda war. Instead of uniting the Muslim world behind the cause of justice, we are only succeeding in dividing them from us and our objectives, and setting up yet more fanatical opposition to Britain and America.

However, to espouse such opinions, to seek ways through the present complex conflict that are more realistic (and potentially more lasting) than simplistic patriotic sloganeering is to run the risk of being vilified in America by folks who seem to think that any questioning of policy is unpatriotic.

I returned to Charlotte (yes, I know Don Reid will be disappointed, but I'm back again) to find another letter urging me to depart these shores forthwith. Sentiments like this are fairly common, and reveal the nasty and ignorant underbelly of American public opinion, but the one printed in Creative Loafing was one of the more hateful, loaded as it was with none-too-subtle threats that I should leave before the letter writer finds me in Charlotte.

In England we have a term for narrow-minded folk who don't have the wits to comprehend larger issues and understand international complexity, who imagine one Briton is better than any bunch of foreigners, and who want Britain to stay aloof from the issues of the world. We call them "Little Englanders," illustrating the smallness of their brains and their vision, and acknowledging that a small island off the coast of northern Europe doesn't mean much these days if it isolates itself.

America has woken up to the fact that it needs the rest of the world a lot more than she thought it did. To acknowledge limits on one's power and position, and to seek help from others rather than demanding compliance, are humbling but necessary tasks if this nation is to mature morally and politically to match the scope of its military and commercial power.

The essence of patriotism in a democracy is to question authority honestly and to probe its motivation, to seek complex solutions that do justice to complicated problems and not be satisfied with simplistic jingoism and toeing the party line. I regard myself as far more patriotic in the cause of democratic freedom than those who brandish the flag in my face and threaten me. That's what the Taliban do to people who disagree with them.

The democratic freedoms we enjoy today, and which we are fighting justly to protect, had their foundations laid nearly 900 years ago, when the barons of Runnymede called their king to account. In a green meadow on the banks of the River Thames, they created a "Great Charter of English Liberties" that has spawned a quest for justice that resonates to this day.The barons could have defeated King John's troops, but instead of choosing a short-term victory by arms they opted for the longer term and more complicated rule of law. It was a triumph of reason over steel, of brains over blood.

In our own time we're learning that it will take a lot more than military might and computerized warfare to secure the lasting peace in Afghanistan and the wider Middle East that is necessary for our homeland security. We need international law and political consensus to provide the framework for our actions and to place us clearly on the side of justice. We're not just and honorable simply because we say we are. In these days when it's easier to reach for our sword and our flag, it's a lesson we could learn well from the barons of Runnymede. *

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