HICKS: A solemn reminder of the value of shared sacrifice

September 10, 2011

This Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001. Most memories of the event involve genuinely deep feeling—the sadness for lives lost in the attacks and later military action mixed with wistful pride for the unity we all felt in the wake of the tragedy. It is most unfortunate that the strength of that unity was matched only by its brevity and price.

The time since 9/11 has been difficult, and I believe most Americans view our fight in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere as grim necessities, executed imperfectly at a high cost with benefits that mostly accrue to citizens of other countries.

A small group of citizens also objected to our participation in World War I, World War II and the struggles of the Cold War. I have little patience for this hodgepodge of libertarians, quasi-pacifist leftists and Quakers, but I have seen Saddam Hussein’s fascist regime up close and personal. A little experience with these matters matures one’s outlook greatly and I am glad he is gone.

On this anniversary of 9/11, I think we would do well to acknowledge that we have relinquished too little of ourselves in the years since the attacks. The lack of general sacrifice lies in contrast to the deep losses some families have suffered. I think we are worse off for not having been asked to give more.

Having only a few of our citizens bear the direct burden of war is a luxury of the modern age. Many of these American men and women now have been at war longer than any generation before. While there has been no shortage of gratitude to our warriors, the rest of us gave too little. In wars that cost trillions and will continue to burden our treasury for a half century, we failed to tighten our belts and face the challenge together.

It is no doubt easy to say in retrospect, but the length of the wars should have necessitated a more general sacrifice. Beginning in 2003, Congress should have begun shrinking—not growing—the federal budget. At the same time, we could have imposed a modest tax to pay for the war. The entire current cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could have been paid for through a supplementary tax that was equivalent to one fancy cup of coffee each day for the wealthiest half of all households.

Of course, that would have missed the point. What we needed then (as now) is not easy sacrifice, but shared sacrifice in which all of us could really participate.

I believe our leaders of the last decade will be remembered not for demanding too much from a few, but for asking too little of the rest of us. That may be a useful lesson as we struggle to rescue our fiscal health from the costs of war and miscalculations of peace.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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