The word courage is spelled exactly the same way in French and English and has the same meaning in both languages. But, it is a word that we hear less and less frequently these days in both languages. True, President Obama recently awarded former Marine Corps Corporal Dakota Meyer the Medal of Honor for his courageous actions saving his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan in September 2009.
And, this weekend the Musée des Suisses dans le monde inaugurated an area in its museum entitled Lumières dans les Ténèbres, a room dedicated to exceptional Swiss, including the Consul Carl Lutz, who saved 62, 000 Jews from death in Budapest in 1944; the Roman Catholic seminarian Maurice Bavaud, who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1938 and was subsequently executed, and the Chief Red Cross delegate in the Middle East from 1963 to 1971 André Rochat who was instrumental in several delicate diplomatic missions, including freeing hostages from plane hijackings.
One is humbled in recalling the actions of each of these people, as one is in thinking of the examples of political courage in Senator John F. Kennedy's 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of eight United States Senators. In each of the histories, Kennedy traces the decision to cross party lines and/or go against popular opinion which caused the Senators minimally be harshly criticized and in some cases to be voted out of office.
How are these examples of courage relevant? In the case of Lutz, as with others who saved lives from Nazi extermination, their own lives were clearly at stake. In the cases of Rochat and Meyer, they often went against the orders of their superiors for a higher cause. In the case of Bavaud, he was abandoned by his own government. And, in the cases of the eight Senators, they did not follow what would have been best for their political careers. Each of the courageous mentioned responded to what was thought the right thing to do. And history has proven their actions justified, as opposed to others who have acted in the name of conscience and who have been proven to be not only incorrect, but in some cases totally delusional. The line between acting for one's conscience and insanity is not as large as some imagine.
What is relevant today in particular is the power of opinion polls. Politicians are susceptible to acting according to what they think the public wants them to do, as if their only function is to be representative of public opinion. I would love to hear someone say that they will be proposing a law or voting on a motion in a certain way because "it is the right thing to do," in spite of what the political consequences may be.
We often speak of the role of values behind Western democracies, but when the time comes to vote on a given issue, such as Palestinian statehood, the only values discussed are political expediencies. Whether one agrees with a vote or not, it has been a long time since people have crossed party lines or gone against public opinion by being courageous. The awarding of the medal and the exhibit at the Chateau de Penthes are excellent reminders how the value of courage has been de-emphasized and how we feel enlightened when told of what humans are capable of doing in surpassing the ordinary and limited self-interest.