It’s been just over a week since Qassem Soleimani has become a household name. For most Amerians, the news that broke on Jan. 2, that a US drone strike had killed the top Iranian general, thrust the country and the world into a new state of tension and frenzy.
Of course, Jan. 2 was not an isolated event. It’s really just the first thing that recently made the general citizenry pay close attention. Relations between Iran and the U.S. have been strained for decades, increasing in more tangible ways this summer.
But the surprise strike against the Iranian general in Iraqi territory brought those tensions to an abrupt and startling head. Quickly after the attack, the Iraqi Parliament demanded the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and Iran promised retaliation against an American military target. Within a few days, Iran fired dozens of ballistic missiles at U.S. military bases in Iraq.
Add this to the ominous and vague Twitter war between political leaders in both countries and the crash of a Ukrainian plane just a day after the Iranian missile strike in Iraq, and the crisis between our two countries continues to escalate.
As citizens, we are limited in what details we can know and understand about situations like these. Much of what we hear, see and read from news agencies is only a faint whisper of what is actually happening on the ground and behind the scenes. Details are fuzzy and information doesn’t always come quickly.
Sometimes that information is so delayed that the damage is already done before citizens have a chance to understand what’s happening and what actions they think the country should take.
In the case of Iran, demand for transparency has been strong. Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle are calling for information — even if just to assure their constituencies that their elected representatives are in the know and in control.
There’s been a lot of mud slinging between Republicans and Democrats over the past few days. Talking heads only serve to make it worse. Some declare it unpatriotic to question the government’s decisions; others call it unpatriotic to do the opposite.
The truth is both sides are right — and wrong.
For a democracy to be strong it must have a delicate mix of trust and distrust in the government and its decisions. Citizens need leaders who are open and accountable. Leaders need citizens to be confident in their abilities to make competent decisions.
Here we face an impasse.
For the past 40 years, America has seen a pretty consistent decline in public trust across the board — in our political leaders, in the press and in the fundamental democratic institutions that are foundational to our government system.
And over time that distrust has slowly eroded to an intransigent cynicism that either blindly has faith in or obstinately opposes everything the government says or does.
And this is a dangerous place for a country, particularly one that is facing the prospect of what would be a bloody and complicated war.
What we need is healthy skepticism — a questioning citizenry that challenges the decisions of the government, who has the reasonable ability to do that because it is engaged and participates.
Healthy skepticism is essential to a functional democracy.
Asking questions creates accountability — for both leaders and citizens. It forces citizens to understand what is happening, to do the research, to pay attention to the decisions leaders are making and the ideas they are promoting. At the same time, that accountability transfers to government officials who need to give citizens valid, reasonable and justified arguments for the decisions they make.
We live in a representative government. The decisions our leaders make are being made in our names. We should want insight into how and why they come to those conclusions.
In the immediate, wanting to know the rationale behind the attack on Soleimani is certainly reasonable. It is has implications, not just for a potential war, but also for the people who are living in between our two nations. Much of the Middle East faces great fear at what a war between America and Iran would do to a region that faces continued instability and deals with consequences of the proxy war between our two nations already.
But the implications of this go beyond just the immediate. A healthy skepticism is essential to a functioning democracy. And no matter who is president or what party is in control, our citizenry needs to be prepared to engage in a relationship of mutual accountability with the government.
It’s fundamental to democratic survival.
Cortney Stewart is a 2003 graduate of Lecanto High School. She has bachelor’s degrees in political science and international affairs, a master’s degree in intercultural studies and is currently working on her Ph.D. in international conflict management. She most recently spent two years teaching and training students, teachers and government officials in Baghdad, Iraq. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.