"To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by Scripture." -- Thomas Paine, "The American Crisis"
Common Sense, although only 48 pages long, was one of the most influential and widely read treatises of its times. If Thomas Paine, author of other brilliant pamphlets as well were to emerge today, he probably would be stunned that the original 13 colonies had become the 50 United States and the richest and most powerful country on earth.
However, he would be stunned in another tragic way. He would find that common sense was not only missing in action, it may have been banned from the political discourse by the pernicious, divisive and dangerous characteristics in contemporary American society.
He would painfully observe that the Capitol had been overrun on Jan. 6, not by British Red Coats again, when the White House, Congress and other buildings were set afire, but by Americans for the only time since 1814. If Paine were informed of American history since the Revolution, he would note that after disasters such as the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941 and Sept. 11, 2001, the nation moved to form bipartisan commissions to investigate these catastrophes.
Yet, Democrats who voted in the House with about 35 Republicans to create a commission are strongly opposed by congressional Republicans and the former president. The stated reason is that these Republicans want to expand the commission to include extremism of the right -- and presumably the left -- and the violence that followed after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis a year ago.
The more likely reason is this: Republicans are fearful that a commission only centered on the events of Jan. 6 will reveal the impact of Donald Trump on the insurrection and expose the duplicity of some Republican members of Congress who have either denied that the riots were widespread, rejecting the credibility of actual video, or may have supported the protesters in some way.
If common sense were to prevail, a simple solution is possible. First, establish the Jan. 6 Commission. Second, since the intelligence and law enforcement agencies have stated that the greatest terrorist threat comes from White supremacist nationalists, establish a parallel commission to examine that danger and the causes of the violence that swept through Portland, Ore., Seattle, Minneapolis and other cities.
Unfortunately, common sense will not be applied. Nor will it be applied to the wearing of masks to contain the spread of COVID-19. Paine, a powerful advocate of free speech, would not understand why so many Americans refuse to take the very simple step and effective means of containing a pandemic.
Once made more current with life in 2021, he would observe that people must wear seatbelts in cars for safety reasons and ask what is the difference. He might also wonder if the vaccine is only effective for six months or a year and a booster shot is required, meaning 300 million or so Americans would have to be re-inoculated, would that not suggest mask wearing may be a more permanent requirement?
Finally, he would understand that if in the U.S. government, one party did not have veto-proof majorities in Congress and control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue; or a massive crisis such as Pearl Harbor or 9/11 did not unite the Congress, without civility and compromise, the system is no longer functional. In a rational world, common sense would mean that Republicans and Democrats could find a modus vivendi. Yet, in today's politics, that rationality seems impossible to achieve.
Paine surely would reaffirm that: "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." Liz Cheney did in refusing to accept the "big lie" in which Trump won the 2020 election and is now consigned to a political Siberia.
The question is who next will stand firm, and who will apply common sense? Unless or until elected leaders answer that question affirmatively, or the public demands they do, the nation's trajectory is increasingly headed in a wrong and dangerous direction.
Who will listen, and who will lead? As long as common sense is missing or resting in peace, do not expect any good answers.
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became Looming Existential Threats to a Divided Nation and the World at Large."
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.