Often among the causes of war - on both sides - is the inability of large numbers of people to think independently, clearly, and critically. As a result, highly toxic plagues of fear of "the others," virulent bigotry, and susceptibility to conspiracy theories nurtured by governments can create destruction and deaths.
For over sixty years, I have been a reporter, focusing on education and civil liberties. Challenged by this question for the panel, I begin with two statements that have increasingly driven my work (which is my life).
With regard to education, I have written books and many stories about specific ways of teaching in schools around the country, but years ago, while interviewing schools chancellor Tony Alvarado in New York City, I realized what was crucially missing in most efforts to "reform" the schools.
The reading scores had just come in and were markedly higher than usual, but Alvarado was glum. I asked him why.
"Oh, they can read," he said, "but I'm not so sure they know how to think. That's where teaching has to go."
A second illumination on how I could be more useful at my lifelong work was when I was researching a New Yorker magazine profile of Justice William Brennan.
In his chambers at the Supreme Court, Justice Brennan suddenly looked unusually troubled. "How," he said more to himself than to me, "can we get the words of the Bill of Rights off the page and into the lives of students?"
Back then, I began to connect the vital priorities of the schools chancellor and the justice. In education, the reliance on mass testing - for tests to measure the success of whole classes and even schools and sometimes close them down as failures - has increased exponentially with the No Child Left Behind mandate. Arne Duncan, President Obama's secretary of education, is continuing collective testing.
The differences among individual students in their capacities and diverse obstacles for learning get far too little attention, if any, in some schools. Accordingly, I search out and report on those principals and teachers who work to make each student believe he or she can learn. Some are in charter schools or in some regular public schools, and my next book, Is This America? will have sizeable sections on nurturing the self-confidence in individual students that they can be - and are desirous of being - lifelong learners.
From this adventurous sense of the rewards of reading and exploring interests beyond school assignments come critical thinkers. And such citizens are much less likely to be swept up in the fears, bigotries, and conspiracy theories that lead to war.
As for Justice William Brennan's concern that Americans know why they are Americans - with their individual liberties and rights underlined in the Constitution - he strongly advised me that day, knowing I was on the way to rural Pennsylvania to speak of the Bill of Rights to high school students:
"Tell them stories about who we are and were!"
I had already been doing that, but spurred on by Justice Brennan, I did more to bring our history back to life. Once, at a book fair in Miami where authors had to work for their publicity, I was assigned to speak about my book Living the Bill of Rights (University of California Press) to a large audience of high school students.
Just before I began a teacher advised me, "Don't be upset at the limited reaction. These kids are mostly interested in music and clothes."
For more than an hour, I told them how Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty - though not having access to anything like the Internet - created the Committee of Correspondence to spread word throughout the colonies of abuses of their inherent rights by the British officers here and by the king of England. I added that Thomas Jefferson believed that Samuel Adams thereby had been a precipitating cause of the American Revolution.
I also told them stories of what had been done to people speaking from their consciences against government censors before we were protected by the First Amendment - along with why individual privacy is essential to a truly democratic government, and is guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. Or should be.
And at the end of my talk, I received a standing ovation - not because of my oratory, but because the students had discovered America!
Listening to those stories, I knew, would inspire them to learn more about our history and what it has taken, and still does, to keep the Constitution, very much including the Bill of Rights, our shield against government overreaching into our individual rights.
American citizens aware of how war and fear of war threaten our personal as well as national independence - as did the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, President Woodrow Wilson's suspension of the First Amendment in World War I, and the Japanese-American internment camps here during World War II - will be far less easily led to support unjustified wars.
I have also written widely, as a reporter, on a particularly important warning by retiring Supreme Court justice David Souter at the Georgetown Law Center in May of 2009.
The republic, he said, "can be lost and will be lost if it is not understood." He showed surveys demonstrating how large numbers of Americans can't even name the three branches of government, let alone the core necessity of keeping the separation of powers functioning.
And I have found other chilling pools of ignorance when I have spoken not only at middle schools and high schools but also at classes in graduate schools. How many Americans do you think can list the five freedoms of the First Amendment? Can you?
In his farewell address, David Souter, soon to return to Weare, New Hampshire, said he had already agreed to be part of a committee engaged in revamping the civics curriculum in New Hampshire's public schools.
"If I can do it," he told the audience, "you can do it too."
"What is needed," he emphasized, is nothing less than "the restoration of the self-identity of the American people."
That means our self-identities as Americans who as free citizens think for themselves and think critically.
The words alone of the First Amendment, for example, are not enough. As Erich Fromm reminded us in his book Escape from Freedom:
"The right to express our thoughts means something only if we are able to have thoughts of our own."
What I do for a living as a writer is to spread the words about those educators who are enabling Americans to, as Henry David Thoreau put it, "listen to their own drum." They are then less likely to be attracted to the drums of war.
Veteran columnist Nat Hentoff is an expert on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. His new book At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (University of California Press) is scheduled for publication in June.