I love my country. I love it first because it is my country, just as I love my family because they are my family. And while some things might make me decide to just give up on either my family or my country, it takes a lot more than it would to make me give up on some other family or country, just because they are mine.
But I also love it for the noble experiment I take it to be. We have never completely lived up to our ideals. We enslaved people, slaughtered the indigenous peoples of North America, and so on. But we also always had a set of ideals that we tried to live up to, however imperfectly, and these shine through even the darkest parts of our history, and let us see it as a still unfinished attempt to be something truly great.
I take those ideals to be: that we are a nation of laws; that we are entitled to freely choose our own government, and that that government is legitimate only in virtue of our consent; that our government should leave us free to debate political and social questions and decide them for ourselves, rather than trying to constrain debate, and that it should leave us free to choose our own faith, rather than trying to impose one on us; that we should trust one another, and our government should trust us, to act like responsible adults who can be counted on to choose responsibly, on the whole, even if Rush Limbaugh and Ward Churchill and people like them are allowed to try to convince us of idiotic things; and that the 'we' I speak of should encompass all competent adults, not just members of some privileged group. In other words, liberty and equality under the rule of law.
This is a glorious set of ideals, and I love my country for trying to incarnate them, especially since, when our Constitution was written, people were not at all confident that any such government could succeed. (I have spent a lot of time reading Enlightenment moral and political philosophy; democracies and republics were generally thought to require both a small territory and the cultivation of an extreme, unnatural Spartan form of civic virtue. In this context, the creation of the USA was an enormous leap of faith based on some really radical revisions of Locke and Montesquieu, revisions I don't think either thinker would have endorsed.) It was a crazy, inspired, wonderful idea to try to build a Republic on the ideals I just mentioned, and the astonishing thing is that our founders not only had this idea, but managed to write a Constitution capable of making it work, and then lived by that Constitution consistently enough that it stood the test of time. (Think of other revolutions carried out in the name of noble ideals -- France being the obvious example -- and how they turned out.) As I think I said in some previous thread, I regard this as a sort of miracle.
For those of us who are American citizens, this is our inheritance. We have been born into an astonishing country, with astonishing values. And it is our job, as citizens, to help keep alive in whatever small way we can, because, like any inheritance, it can be squandered. And the only thing that will keep it intact is if we, who have been lucky enough to inherit it, try to keep faith with those who bequeathed it to us, and do our best to preserve and enhance it for those who come after us.
One of the odd things about blogs is that they are so new, and thus most of the people who read this blog have only known me, in whatever way one knows people on the web, for a year at most. So most of you have no way of knowing that I have spent most of my life not being sick at heart about my country. Sometimes I agreed with its policies, sometimes I did not, sometimes I disagreed strongly; but for most of my life I have not felt as though what I loved about the country was in any real danger. But now I do.
This administration has set us on the path to fiscal disaster. When it came into office, America was in decent fiscal shape: we needed to pay down more of our debt, but we were on track to do so. Now we are facing this. And yet virtually no conservatives, as far as I can tell, are calling for a repeal of the Bush tax cuts, or any other step that would make a serious dent in the deficit that will undermine our prosperity if we don't do something about it.
We are on the way to breaking our armed forces. Just today we learned that the Army missed its recruiting goals by 25%; had the army not lowered its goals for this month, we would have been off by over a third. And of course we are mired in a war that shows no signs of ending; in May alone, 80 US soldiers, 270 Iraqi soldiers, and over 700 Iraqi civilians were killed.
We are not addressing any number of serious problems. We seem to have forgotten about al Qaeda. We are doing next to nothing about global warming, which has the potential to truly ruin the planet. We are taking no serious steps to deal with the impending crunch in oil supplies. At a time when China, for instance, is training scientists and engineers like crazy, we seem to be stuck debating whether or not to teach evolution in our schools.
But besides all of this, we are squandering the freedoms and the ideals that we inherited from those who have gone before us, and that have made this country great. This administration actually argued in court that the President has the right to decide that any citizen is an enemy combatant, and that if he so decides, he can detain that citizen without charges, access to counsel, or trial, simply on his say-so. Their arguments did not prevail, but the administration that sought to deprive its citizens of some of our most basic rights -- the right to be imprisoned only on specific charges, to be tried on those charges, and to be represented by counsel -- has never been held to account for doing so. To most Americans, as far as I can tell, the fact that George W. Bush sought to strip us of a right that has been upheld since the Magna Carta has not even registered.
This administration has also argued (pdf) that "In light of the President's complete authority over the conduct of war, without a clear statement otherwise, criminal statutes are not read as infringing on the President's ultimate authority in these areas." (p. 20.) That is, it has argued that the President is not bound by laws when he is acting as Commander in Chief. Again, we have not begun to hold the administration responsible for undermining the rule of law and the separation of powers.
We have imprisoned people who may or may not be enemy combatants for years in Guantanamo, and in prisons in Iraq, Guantanamo and elsewhere. We have, in most cases, no way of knowing which of these prisoners are enemy combatants and which are not. -- A recent article in the LATimes describes a program that should, according to me and Phil Carter, have been set up immediately after 9/11, but is apparently just being set up now, in which Americans of Middle Eastern descent are being recruited as combat linguists. One sentence struck me:
"One interpreter determined that documents found during a recent search of a Baghdad home were not weapons-smuggling blueprints, as U.S. soldiers suspected, but sewing patterns."
How many similar misunderstandings do you suppose there were before we deployed such linguists? And where might someone whom our troops thought had weapons-smuggling blueprints have ended up? Do we have any procedures set up to actually determine whether a given inmate is or is not a terrorist or an enemy combatant? We are planning tribunals, after some people have been locked up for three years, but last time I checked we had held few, if any.
We have tortured people and killed them. We have sent them to countries like Uzbekistan, where they boil people alive, and where we surely knew they would be tortured. In so doing, we also violated treaties we have signed, and thus violated our word, which should be sacred. We have said all the right words about holding people accountable, and about how our willingness to do so will show the people we have abused how a free country operates, and we have then proceeded to do nothing to anyone except the "few bad apples" on whom we blame the torture that our administration plainly condoned.
These are assaults on the most basic principles of this country: the rule of law and respect for human rights and human dignity. And as someone who loves her country in part because of the ideals it stands for, the thought that my country is doing these things, and worse, that our government responds not with outrage but with apparent indifference, is horrifying beyond belief.
Some conservatives may imagine that those of us who criticize our government on this score just hate America and are looking for any excuse to criticize it. I am sure (the law of large numbers again) that there are both liberals and conservatives of whom this is true. But it would be a complete mistake to think that liberals in general, and I in particular, are moved by such motives, or that we need to be reminded that America has more often stood on the side of the angels. If we did not know that, our hearts would not be breaking.
It is not because we hate our country but because we love it and all it stands for that this cuts us to the bone. And it is because we value our inheritance, and appreciate the wisdom and the hard choices that created it that we feel: we must not sit by while it is squandered without trying our best to preserve it: to live up to those who went before us, and to do whatever we can to ensure that we, in turn, pass it on to the next generation stronger and better than before.
Right after the Abu Ghraib photos surfaced, but before I had had time to truly assimilate them, I was at a working meeting with some Canadian academics. We were talking about the war, and one of them said: how, exactly, is America better than Saddam Hussein? That's an idiotic thing to say, I replied. We don't just throw people in prison for no reason and torture and kill them. At that point someone asked: are you sure?
I cannot describe to you (those of you who have not felt it) what it was like to think: no, I am not sure. Not at all. (And to think this while I was arguing what seems to me the obvious fact that we are not, and I hope will never be, in Saddam's moral universe.) It felt the way I imagine it might feel if someone insulted your mother in an argument, and you said, she is not a whore, and the person you were arguing with said: are you sure? Here's a photo of her leaning over a car in shorts and a halter top, taking money, and getting in; and you looked at it and thought: Oh my God. I am not sure at all.
The thought that I could not say, with complete confidence, that my country would never throw people in jail and torture them, would never beat innocent taxi drivers to death for no reason, would never ship prisoners off to be tortured in other countries, and would never try to lock up its citizens without charges, trial or counsel -- that was among the most horrifying thoughts I have ever had. And it was horrifying because I love my country, and because I love it not just because it is mine, but because of what it stands for. And I cannot stand to see it thrown away.
I care about Amnesty International. And as I've said, I would not have used That Word. But I care about my country more.