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Finding courage all around us

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Republican senator from Alaska,

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Republican senator from Alaska, called Gen. Jim Mattis' recent criticism of President Trump "true and honest and necessary and overdue".  Credit: AP/Toni L. Sandys

Perhaps Lisa Murkowski needed to hear Jim Mattis take a stand against President Donald Trump before she spoke of what clearly has been gnawing at her. We all have different wells from which we summon courage.

Mattis, the revered Marine Corps general and former defense secretary, ended a long silence after his resignation in 2018 to write last week that Trump was unfit for office and a threat to the Constitution. That prompted Murkowski, the Republican senator from Alaska, to call Mattis' remarks "true and honest and necessary and overdue" and to confess that she was struggling with whether she could support Trump in November's election.

It’s risky business to talk about courage and politicians, for whom courage is so often entwined with calculation. Politicians often find courage when it won’t cost them at the ballot box. And while Trump, predictably, responded to Murkowski's musings by vowing to endorse anyone with "a pulse" in a primary against her, the reality is that Murkowski isn't up for reelection until 2022. 

Still, she seemed sincere in her assessment, and to be fair Murkowski never has been a blind-loyal Trumpist. It remains to be seen how many of her fellow Republicans, critical of the president in private but circumspect in public, find the courage to join her — though one must allow that perhaps some of them genuinely believe that ordering federal personnel to use chemical gas and rubber bullets to attack people peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights is a good thing, among other outrages. Either way, the paucity of courage in Congress is one of the biggest arguments for term limits.

Most of us are more accustomed to discussing more traditional displays of courage, like that shown by astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, who were the first to sit in a SpaceX capsule for launching to the International Space Station. Being first always means being unsure about what’s going to happen.

Courage in any form is inspiring, and there are many forms all around us.

Medical workers, transit workers, home health aides, grocery store personnel, first responders, and other sorts of front-line workers have summoned courage just to keep doing the jobs that put them in peril. Folks who have lost jobs or shuttered their businesses and now face financial peril show courage in pushing on and reassuring loved ones that they will be OK. Marchers seeking change after the killing of George Floyd have the courage of their convictions, and of their willingness to expose themselves to the coronavirus they fear as evidenced by the masks they wear. Protesters and police, mutually determined to remain respectful, show courage in facing each other uncertain of the outcome; members on both sides who commit violent provocations do not. 

Last week, Suffolk County lawmaker William Spencer told a legislative committee hearing that he has been pulled over by police at least 50 times in his nearly 53 years of life. Spencer is black. He also is a physician and an ordained minister, is considered an equanimous and thoughtful leader, and is highly respected in all of his many walks of life. And yet, he said, he has been called "boy" and has had guns drawn on him by law enforcement.

"When I get pulled over, even in Suffolk County, until the point where that officer recognizes who I am, I am terrified. I am terrified,” Spencer said.

It takes no courage to hide behind walls and fences and spout tough words from an armored cocoon. But living every day sometimes takes all the courage one can muster.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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