"For too long our culture has said, 'If it feels good, do it.' Now America is embracing a new ethic and a new creed: 'Let's roll,'" Bush said in his State of the Union speech.
Todd Beamer used the phrase when he and his fellow passengers on Flight 93 charged the terrorists who had redirected the plane. The ensuing struggle caused the plane to crash in Pennsylvania, taking the lives of all the passages but presumably saving the lives of many others in the nation's capital.
Their sacrifice moved the nation. It inspired Neil Young to write an eerie song with a pulsing refrain, "Time is runnin' out … let's roll." It provided a stirring conclusion to Bush's November pep-talk in Atlanta, when, after retelling the Beamer story, Bush said, "We have our marching orders. My fellow Americans, Let's roll."
Last week, however, the president proposed the phrase as a guiding star for national conduct.
Of course, we have had other three-word ethical directives. The civil rights movement kept hope alive with "We shall overcome." Nancy Reagan gave us the slogan "Just say no." Nike offered "Just do it."
"Let's roll" does have positive aspects. It is simple, memorable, decisive and emotionally laden. It contains the much-needed communal content of "us" missing from the expressive individualism of the feel-good ethic.
But "Let's roll" also has drawbacks. It is devoid of an appreciation of complexity and danger, as illustrated in the movie "Black Hawk Down." The bravado of "Let's roll" into Mogadishu needlessly cost the lives of combatants and non-combatants.
Similarly, such an ethical watchword could provide moral cover for deeply flawed corporations like Enron with its Darwinian swagger. One could imagine other pious Ken Lays commissioning their executives with "Let's roll," then rolling over employees, shareholders, good business standards, honesty and truth.
For all its popular appeal, "Let's roll" simply lacks the moral gravitas as the catchphrase for a new ethic.
Nevertheless, Bush is heading in a morally positive direction. He rightly said that the American sacrifice since Sept. 11 has given us a glimpse of "what a new culture of responsibility could look like." Indeed, we need "a nation that serves goals larger than self."
His emphases on service, community and compassion are much needed. His "non-negotiable" list includes noble standards: "the rule of law; limits on the power of the state; respect for women; private property; free speech; equal justice; and religious tolerance."
What we need is a new phrase to accompany a new culture of responsibility. Suggestions would surely be welcomed at the White House.
Robert Parham is BCE's executive director.