Saturday, July 09, 2005

1. Why speak out?

On September 11, 2001, as the political cliche goes, everything changed. Indeed, I remember talking with my brother in Korea by phone that morning, and the two of us simultaneously watching one the second plane hit even though we were half a world apart. After we hung up, I continued watching the coverage in shock. I began to feel sick and I wanted to cry.

Obviously, I was horrified by the destruction and the senseless loss of life. But I was almost equally sickened by what I knew would soon happen to my country. Americans, for all our redeeming qualities, do not have a history of staying enlightened and committed to principles of democracy when we are threatened and attacked. Point to the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. Remember McCarthyism and Red Scares and teaching school children about the Evil Empire during the Cold War. Similar Western democracies had also been led astray during times of fear. The arson-burning of the German parliament building became a flashpoint that opened the door for the public of that nation to accept and look the other way as the persecution of Jews began even before World War II.

I am glad that for the next several weeks, our country came together in unprecidented unity. It was an emotional time of healing. But then, as differences in opinion emerged--which is inevitable in a free democracy--there soon became a distinct message that our opinions should remain unified and uncritical of our government and its actions. As time went on, dissenting opinions were not just labeled as incorrect or unwise or even wrong. People who disagreed with the ruling party were called unpatriotic, terrorist-sympathizers, and even treasonous. Those who are criticizing our administration, it was argued, were giving aid and comfort to the terrorists. We should not ask what America or anybody has done that led to the 9/11 attacks, we were told. The terrorists hate our freedom. If you think America is so bad, why don't you just leave?

Of course, several years before, I had struggled to write an essay for 4-H, (an extracurricular civic education club for children, especially in rural areas) on what it means to be an American. I struggled with the paradox of our national motto: E Plurbus Unam: From Many, One. We have many races, cultures, religions and point of views that have come together to make us one nation. So, what defines us as Americans? Speaking English? Adhering to one culture and one way of doing things? Worshiping all in the same way? Surely, being American was nothing so subjective and trite. Americanism had to be something more universal and more pure. An American, I wrote, was someone who is committed to the democratic principles laid forth in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. In truth, these are nearly the only cultural, political, social, economic and religious instruments which all Americans agree upon as being good and worthy of dying for. A few years later, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia visited my law school and spoke, and essentially said the same thing.

What makes America great? Open and free discussion of our government and its actions and policies, the freedom to worship as you wish and as much or as little as you wish, and the ability to disagree and resolve differences without having to resort to violence--these are things which seem universally and eternally American to me. Now, in the wake of 9/11, what seemed so universally and eternally American to me was called giving aid and comfort to the terrorists.

Respectfully, I must disagree. The most patriotic thing I can do for my country is to be American in its best and purest sense, rather than to change what I say and do, and the freedom with which I can say and do it simply because some evil people did some evil things to my country. If we believe that America stands for freedom, but indefinitely curtail such freedoms for an indefinite war that claims to defend it, than have we not then let terrorists change our way of life? If we start sliding into a police state with omnipresent surveilance and ever-receeding civil liberties, then what exactly is it that our sons and daughter are spilling their blood for?

Shortly after the framers of our Constitution emerged from their 18th century conclave of democratic debate and compromise, a woman is said to have asked the aging Benjamin Franklin what kind of government the delegates had given us, Franklin replied, "A Republic, Ma'am, if you can keep it."

The greatest threat to America is not from any terrorist or foreign invader. Let the evildoers destroy what ever buildings it wants and kill the people it can--America as the last best hope of humanity will survive, because it is not a building or any group of people. America is an idea more precious than all the gold in Ft. Knox or all the value of the stocks on Wall Street. The greatest threat to America is from its own people when they forget that idea and relinquish, bit by bit, our ability to be Americans. If the idea of America is to survive the War on Terror, it must bravely be defended within the hearts and minds of Americans here at home.

So I started my own blog.