Moscow's reply was brief and blunt: "The Soviet Union does not exchange generals for captains!"
That's a bit hard-line, even for American conservatives disappointed in the Bush team's offering to the
Chinese of so many "sorrys" and "very sorrys," but it opens a discussion Americans must begin, no
matter how repugnant and discomfiting it may be.
America has a moral strength that is simultaneously a tactical weakness. America has a virtue that is
simultaneously a tactical sin. This particular strength and virtue are real. It's not an act. It's not a show. We Americans deeply and
genuinely care about human life, even one human life.
In the 1950s a little 2-year-old girl named Kathy Fiscus fell into a well in the American Midwest.
America almost literally stopped while the entire nation fixated upon the rescue attempts. Those attempts
failed, and America reacted as a family that had lost a 2-year-old daughter. There was even a
country-western song about "Kathy and the Well."
To this day you see repeats of the coverage by Stone
Phillips on NBC-TV of a successful rescue of a similar little girl named Jessica many years later – and
many years ago. It keeps getting repeated because so many Americans like to see that kind of happy
We all know America's military tradition of never – if at all possible – abandoning our casualties alive or
even dead, regardless of what logistical hardships bringing them along might involve.
Haitian dictator Henri Christophe once ordered a unit of his army to keep marching right off the flat
roof of a castle to their doom, just to impress a foreign visitor with their discipline and loyalty. Iran, Iraq,
Communist China and many other countries and guerrilla movements ignore all available ways to limit the
loss of their own troops in favor of massive "human sea" attacks head-on into the direct fire of the
defenders. Russian units ordered to attack the Germans were backed by Red Army political rifle squads
whose job it was to shoot any of their own troops who showed signs of faltering in the assault.
My friend Gi Hong is (we believe) the only veteran of North Korea's Communist army ever to become an
American citizen. As a superior soldier-student-Communist, he'd been awarded a scholarship to study
engineering in Budapest. He turned anti-Communist and assisted the Hungarian student freedom-fighters
in their October 1956 uprising.
I met Gi Hong in Vienna in 1956 the day he escaped from Communist
Hungary after the Soviet put-down of the Hungarian freedom fight. With the help of Congressman
Francis E. Walters and my broadcast boss Tex McCrary, we got Gi Hong out of a refugee camp in Austria
into the United States. As his English improved over the years, he told me how, after he was severely
wounded fighting American Marines near the 38th parallel,
Of course, America's not the only country that cares about every single one of its people. But you're being
piggish and counter-historical if you don't concede top prize to the United States.
Many Americans are concerned about what message the Bush handling of the collision sends to the
Chinese Communists. Why just the Chinese Communists? What about the message to international
terrorists and every other militant force on earth that hates America. They've all just been emphatically
reminded how easy it is to paralyze America.
All you've got to do is grab some Americans.
Whether it's 24 Americans on a surveillance plane, an embassy-full in Iran, a shipload off the
coast of North Korea, a lone professor mysteriously arrested in Russia, or three U.S. soldiers who
strayed too close to the Serbian border in Macedonia, America will make deals, trade arms for hostages,
release whoever the abductors want released, and bend or break vital American security interests in order
to get our people safely returned.
What follows is admittedly tough, counter-human, brutalitarian, anti-American – and utterly vital to our
survival in a world where all can see the profit in taking Americans, and all can see the huge number of
Americans vulnerable to being taken.
Start with the military. Those who put on the uniform already know they are volunteering to make the
ultimate sacrifice for this nation. Many, though, perceive that risk as limited to combat or accident. That
sacrificial notion must be broadened to include the understanding that our government may be forced to
tell future captors: "We shall not be influenced in any way by the fate of those Americans you hold
hostage. We have written them off. They do not exist for the purposes of our calculations."
Our diplomats, too, must be led to embrace that same understanding. Likewise, civilian professionals and
even tourists, under certain conditions, must understand the new rules. Archeology is a noble calling, but
a lot of it goes on in or near countries that sponsor or sympathize with terrorism. Let the archeologists,
then, go forth with this new understanding along with their ancient maps and pickaxes. Missionaries have
understood these risks for centuries. American passports have long listed places where America might not
be able to ensure the holder's safety. Those warnings must now be taken seriously. It's a lot easier to
grab Americans in the wilds of Yemen than in downtown London.
It's unbearably bitter to calculate how many Americans will be lost when we respond to hostage-takers'
demands not with concessions, but with blunt REJECTION of concessions followed immediately by
escalated threats of our own.
After a time, however – and admittedly after who-knows-how-many grim scenes of coffins being
returned to Dover Air Force Base – the hostage-takers of the world will get the point that American
resolve has removed any value from the once-upon-a-time temptation to seize Americans and then
proceed to dictate terms and collect the payoff.
Then, and only then, will the president and his team really be able to deal.
We have brave battle cries in our national past. (Are they still taught in school?) John Paul Jones, when
asked to surrender by a British captain, who seemed to have the upper hand, declared, "I have not yet
begun to fight!" And Admiral Farragut during the battle of Mobile Bay in the Civil War issued the order, "Damn the
torpedoes. Full speed ahead!"
And let's not omit the most telling proclamation of them all; referring to the time when the Barbary pirates
of north Africa were capturing Americans and holding them for ransom. You remember it: "Millions for
defense, but not one cent for tribute!" ("Tribute" means ransom.)
Left unsaid in the China surveillance crisis, and understandably so, is the sudden, dramatic Chinese
conversion from the very society that gave the world the notion that "life is cheap" all the way over to our
American-style reverence for one single life. That switcheroo happened with one finger-snap and no
way stations in between.
Prior to the collision China was the nation that killed, according to historian Robert Conquest, over 60
million people during its revolution. It didn't stop there. Every time the Chinese Communist revolution
had a historical hiccup, millions more died. Mao Tse-tung's Great Leap Forward? Millions more died.
The Cultural Revolution with its Red Guards? Millions more died. The "human sea" attacks featuring
Chinese infantry troops force-fed directly into American machine-gun fire in Korea? Tens of thousands
more died. The fetus is female? Millions more die. And not all of it is abortion. Much of it is
But now, in one blazing all-of-a-sudden, the Chinese pilot Wang Wei, who died after unskillfully
harassing our American aircraft, becomes of utmost concern to the Chinese people.
My religion forbids me from making any accusation, but my human nature forces me to wonder if there's
any politics behind the Chinese media apotheosis of Wang Wei. I, therefore, do not say to Beijing,
"Damn you for pretending after all your utter disregard for human life to have such overwhelming concern
for one human life." All I can in clear conscience say is, "Welcome, Brother, to the awareness of the
importance of one life!"
It's easy to measure time, temperature and relative humidity. It's impossible to measure feeling.
If it were, I'd be willing to bet myself into instant poverty that I have more feeling of genuine regret about
the loss of the Chinese pilot than the supreme dictator of Communist China and the entire Chinese
politburo and the next five layers of Communist bureaucracy.
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