Dostoevsky considered himself a realist who dealt with crucial moments of human experience. Many writers and critics believe people reveal their true selves in crucial or crisis situations, rather than everyday activities. Give two examples of people whose true nature was revealed in one such crucial moment of human experience.
Individuals who experience traumatic or otherwise life-affirming or changing events can be considered to have exposed their inner selves in a manner that others can only hope to fully comprehend. When I read the student’s question – who are two examples of people whose true nature was revealed in a crucial moment of human experience – the first name that entered my mind was that of Senator John McCain. Whether one support Senator McCain’s positions on the myriad issues that come before Congress or not – and there are plenty on both sides of that divide – few can question the senator’s personal integrity at a time when it mattered most. Then a young naval officer flying A-4 Skyhawk fighter-bombers off of aircraft carriers, McCain was shot down while flying his 23rd combat mission over North Vietnam. He would spend the next five-and-a-half years in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp being tortured while subsisting, along with his fellow prisoners, on subsistence rations. What made McCain’s personal history particularly noteworthy, however, wasn’t that fact that he survived being shot down, nor that he spent those years living under horrid conditions. It was what happened early in this period when he was offered early release by his North Vietnamese captors. McCain was the grandson and son of Navy admirals. His father, in fact, was the highest-ranking U.S. naval officer in the entire Pacific region during part of McCain’s tenure as a prisoner-of-war. When they learned that their newly-captured prisoner was of such esteemed lineage, the North Vietnamese hoped to score propaganda points by offering McCain his freedom. To accept such an offer would have spared him years of torture and malnourishment. It would also, however, have been a violation of the Uniform Code of Military justice, which requires American prisoners-of-war to only accept release from captivity if no other American captive has been held for a longer period of time. In other words, first in, first out. McCain knew that many other American soldiers, sailors and airmen had been held in captivity longer than him, so he rejected the North Vietnamese offer, which resulted in harsher treatment at the hands of the prison guards. In short, John McCain, in a crucial moment of his personal life, and under the most difficult of conditions, made a decision that many people feel defined his character as a human being.
It is tempting to consider, for the second example, President Abraham Lincoln, who repeatedly displayed both great courage and enormous wisdom in maneuvering the country through its most difficult time. I have chosen, however, to focus on the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (1918-1981), whose assassination was both predictable and enormously tragic. Sadat did not start out heroic; on the contrary, as a career army officer whose rose to the position of vice president under Gamal Abdel Nasser, the pan-Arab nationalist who nationalized the Suez Canal and perpetually threatened the newly-established State of Israel with destruction, Sadat was, for much of his career, a nondescript if loyal apparatchik. Following Nasser’s death, Sadat ascended to the presidency in the autocratic regime that dominated Egypt for many years. Sadat was a willing participant in the October 1973 surprise attack on Israel that seriously imperiled the Jewish state. Following Israel’s costly victory in that war, Sadat could have remained a champion of Arab rejectionists eager to launch another attack on Israel. Such would have been the easy and popular move. Sadat, however, startled the world by defying the hardline Arab nationalists and Islamist extremists within Egypt’s borders by flying to Israel on a mission of peace. The subsequent peace treaty between those two nations, the product of an incredibly arduous negotiating process advanced by then-President James Carter, was the first between an Arab nation and Israel, and allowed for a lessening of tensions along a notoriously volatile border. While Sadat’s assassination at the hands of Islamist extremists was the product of internal political machinations as much as anything, it was the late president’s efforts at achieving peace with Israel that ultimately cost him his life. The two developments -- internal struggles with religious extremism and efforts at achieving a peace agreement with Israel -- were inextricably linked. In short, in a moment of moral clarity, Anwar Sadat chose peace over war, and, in a moment of supreme irony, paid with his life. His decision, however, stands out for the display of moral courage that defined his character both in life and in death.