It is one of the enduring mysteries of American history -- so near-providential as to give the most hardened atheist pause -- that it should have produced, at every hinge point, great men who matched the moment. A roiling, revolutionary 18th-century British colony gives birth to the greatest cohort of political thinkers ever: Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, Washington, Franklin, Jay. The crisis of the 19th century brings forth Lincoln; the 20th, FDR.
Equally miraculous is Martin Luther King Jr. Black America's righteous revolt against a century of post-emancipation oppression could have gone in many bitter and destructive directions. It did not. This was largely the work of one man's leadership, moral imagination and strategic genius. He turned his own deeply Christian belief that "unearned suffering is redemptive" into a creed of nonviolence that he carved into America's political consciousness. The result was not just racial liberation but national redemption.
Such an achievement, such a life, deserves a monument alongside the other miracles of our history -- Lincoln, Jefferson and FDR -- which is precisely where stands the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
Even columns nearly 30 years-old have the capacity to change minds...in one particular case, mine. In a 1985 column dealing with the question of whether President Reagan's trip to Germany should properly include a visit to the Bitburg cemetery, where SS officers are buried, Krauthammer draws the distinction between collective guilt and collective responsibility. Even those SS officers who didn't take part in the worst of the Nazi atrocities must share guilt for their commission. "These crimes would simply compound the guilt. To be a member of the SS is guilt enough."You must experience it. In the heart of the nation's capital, King now literally takes his place in the American pantheon, the only non-president to be so honored. As of Aug. 22, 2011, there is no room for anyone more on the shores of the Tidal Basin. This is as it should be.
We apply the...logic of collective guilt...to white South Africans. Why, after all, are they banned from civilized international life (such as sports), if not for the feeling that by acquiescing to apartheid, they bear some guilt - for which ostracism is not too disproportionate a penalty.But what about those with no conceivable connection to a historical crime. Two-thirds of Germans today, Helmut Kohl like to remind us, are too young to remember the war. Surely they do not bear collective responsibility for the war.Surely they do. They bear, of course, no guilt. But they bear responsibility. The distinction is important.Ask yourself: None of us was around when treaties were made and broken with the Indians a hundred years ago; we bear no guilt; are we absolved of responsibility to make redress today for the sins of our fathers?I wasn't born when Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. If Congress decides to apologize or to compensate the victims with my tax dollars (Sen. Spark Matsunaga introduced the resolution yesterday) will I have suffered an injustice?I think not. The point is this. There is such a thing as a corporate identity. My American identity entitles me to certain corporate privileges: life, liberty, happiness pursued, columns uncensored. These benefits I receive wholly undeserved. They are mine by accident of birth. So are America's debts. I cannot claim one and disdain the other.
During the centuries of slavery in America, my ancestors were being chased by unfriendly authorities across Eastern Europe. I feel, and bear no guilt for the plight of blacks. But America's life is longer than mine. America has sins and obligations that flow from those sins. To be American today is to share in those obligations.
So be it, Sir Charles.