Power & powerlessness

Susan Sontag in the New Yorker (September 24) said that the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was the consequence of actions by "the world’s self-proclaimed superpower." Daniel Maguire of Marquette University writing in Catholic New Times (October 7) characterized the American response as "the vapid answer of an arrogant national culture which has lost its talent for healthy guilt." For some leftist critics of U. S. policy, September 11 was punishment for the cardinal sin of power and pride reflecting Lord Acton’s dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

But consider the obverse of Acton’s terse observation: powerlessness corrupts and absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely. It is a commonplace that powerlessness leads to social pathologies such as addiction and crime. Just as suicide may be the final capitulation to personal powerlessness, terrorism may be the ultimate nihilistic political act. Terrorism may be the absolute corruption of absolute powerlessness.

We feel ill at ease thinking that powerlessness corrupts because we assume that corruption occurs only where there is some power to do good. The powerful could do good but, being corrupt, they use power in the wrong way. The powerless lack capacity to do almost anything and so their destructive acts are regarded as mere matters of compulsion. However one might refine these observations...

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About the Author

Dennis O’Brien, former president of the University of Rochester, is a longtime contributor to Commonweal.