Monday, May 23, 2011

Thoughts on Osama, patriotism and American exceptionalism

The recent death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. military operatives represented the culmination of an international manhunt that spanned almost an entire decade. I, like almost all other Americans, was happy to see the man go. He was a barbaric sociopath responsible for the senseless death of thousands and for the perversion and exploitation of an otherwise peaceful religion. The subsequent jubilation combined with a reorientation of the public discourse regarding foreign policy was understandable and in many ways justifiable. Having said that, the broader implications and symbolic consequences of this event and its byproducts, as well as the auspices under which these events and patterns emerged, are deeply troubling.

I wish to first make clear that in no way should the thoughts and questions posed in this writing be construed as sympathy for Osama bin Laden - I do not lament his passing nor the elimination of any other individual or group found guilty of being responsible for heinous acts of terrorism as were characteristic of bin Laden and his followers. I do however lament the slow but steady demise of American exceptionalism and her once-legitimate claim to the moral high ground. Though I am not so naive as to believe that America was ever perfect or faultless in her actions on the international and domestic fronts, I do firmly believe that there was once a time where she dutifully adhered to the lofty and oft-cited ideals of human rights, self-determination, freedom, democracy, fairness and the rule of law. In the interest of objectivity it should be noted that in times of war and other periods of great distress, we as a nation (but more importantly, the citizenry) have displayed a willingness to stray from these principles in the name of "national security". As early as 1798 with the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts and continuing with Abraham Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus and other constitutionally enumerated rights, as well as Franklin D. Roosevelt's internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and still prevalent today with policies such as warrantless wiretapping and indefinite detention, our seeming readiness to eschew foundational values for the sake of stability and security points to a frightening pattern and raises existential questions about who we are as a nation and as a people.

After the events of September 11th, 2001 a number of new counterterrorism policies were instituted as well as some significant military engagements undertaken. All of the policies and actions initiated following this tragic event would later be defined as crucial components of the “War on Terror”. Here’s the problem with the WoT: you can’t declare war on a tactic used by a small and disparate number of people all over the globe. The very nature of the WoT, with its lack of borders, goals, timeframes and oversight mechanisms, virtually guaranteed that rampant abuses of civil rights and basic human decency would ensue. Accordingly, we soon saw such egregious violations of human rights as extraordinary rendition, the use of torture as an interrogatory tool, indefinite detention without access to legal counsel or due process of law, warrantless wiretapping of domestic and foreign citizens and the list of travesties is nearly endless. Suffice to say that the WoT provided the impetus for a new generation of abusive and morally bankrupt policies and practices through which U.S. standing in the international circuit and her purported role as “moral police” and freedom’s champion were rendered dubious at best and outright fallacious in the eyes of many.

What strikes me as most disturbing about these trends is the complacency and complicity of we the citizens – we literally stood by and watched (there were of course many ardent opponents of the WoT policies) and even emboldened policymakers as our ideals and entire moral code were trampled and denigrated beyond recognition. How were we to admonish the strong-man dictators of developing nations about the virtues of the rule of law when we were disregarding our own? In what way were we (are we) still qualified to lecture the leaders of brutal regimes in Africa or Asia about the necessity for humane treatment of its people when we were simultaneously subjecting suspected terrorists to torture? A related but no less uncomfortable conception that grew out of these policies was the notion that support for them was part and parcel of patriotism and love of country. Conversely, if these policies and practices seemed inimical to the precepts upon which this society bases its customs and values and one were to express those concerns, that person or group would be labeled as unpatriotic and possibly even un-American. In the years immediately proceeding 9/11 (continuing today to a certain extent) we found ourselves in the peculiar position of defending and championing ideas that would have seemed previously antithetical to the “American Way”, to the very essence of what it is to be American.

The notion of patriotism has been a contentious concept for the entirety of our nationhood. Even as far back as the founding generation during which there were debates over what constituted “patriotism” and who, either the Federalists or the Republicans, best embodied the patriotic ethos. Mark Twain once said: “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment of the rather amorphous concept and I would even agree with the oft-repeated axiom that “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” If you meld these two thoughts then you have arrived at where I stand on the patriotism definition scale: my opposition to what I view as un-American WoT policies stems from a deeply rooted sense of pride and affection for ideals and principles that used to be almost singularly American. The inalienable rights and truths of freedom and democracy, fairness and due process, compassion and decency – all of these philosophical abstractions resonate in tangible acts of altruism throughout American history. Those of us who stood and continue to stand up against rendition and assassination, indefinite detention and suspension of habeas corpus are not less American or less patriotic for it; in fact, I would contend that we are more American and patriotic than those who stand idly by and allow our moral and philosophical foundation to be compromised.

I will now bring the post full-circle back to the original topic of Osama bin Laden’s death and the broader, tangential consequences beyond just killing the most-wanted terrorist in the world. I have been wondering what might have happened if the shoe had been on the other foot so to speak – namely, what if Pakistan (or any other country for that matter) had conducted a covert military operation in which they crossed our borders without authorization and assassinated someone residing here. I think it is safe to say that there would be hell to pay. Of course the new power and latitude granted to the U.S. government and military leadership through the PATRIOT Act and other WoT policies allowed for this event to occur; that does not mean that the rest of the world has to agree with the way in which we went about it. I want to reiterate that my concern is not for the life of Osama bin Laden, nor do I suspect that the concerns or questions raised by anyone else stem from sympathy for that individual. We are almost all uniformly glad that the man is gone. But in all reality, what has changed? Osama bin Laden is dead and perhaps a modicum of closure or justice has been delivered to those affected by the events of 9/11 or other bin Laden-orchestrated acts of terrorism, both of which are good things. In doing so however we violated the sovereignty of an independent nation and assassinated a person in the process. We continue to capture suspected terrorists and hold them at secret detention facilities or at Guantanamo Bay indefinitely without trial, access to legal counsel, the right to face their accusers, the provision of Miranda rights or humane treatment, all of which violates American law. The argument generally is that these suspects are not American citizens and therefore do not enjoy the benefits of the American justice system. These detainees and suspects are categorized as “enemy combatants” in keeping with the “war” theme of the “War on Terror” and this technical maneuvering allows for the treatment of these individuals to be justified as something other than what it is: the perversion of inherent and fundamental human rights.

Despite all of the tangible and abstract sacrifices made under the guise of fighting the “War on Terror”, are we safer today than we would have been otherwise? There is significant evidence that images of detainees from Guantanamo Bay and other detention facilities have been used successfully as recruitment tools for extremist and terrorist groups who would be the most likely to attack America again. Human rights organizations and foreign leaders have expressed dissatisfaction with American conduct throughout the duration of the WoT for the reasons listed above and many others as well. The domestic outcry against these policies and practices is equally as ardent, though surely contained within smaller subsections of the larger American populace. The question still remains as to America’s self-described exceptional standing in the world and how that perception has changed over the past decade. The less belligerent foreign policy disposition (though not that much less) of the Obama administration is certainly a start to the reformation process of the American brand in the international arena but it isn’t enough.

As long as the WoT perpetuates itself, with all of its discontinuities, disconnects and dysfunctions, the struggle to regain diplomatic and ideological primacy for America will continue to be perilous. Until the time when we as a people demand the restoration of American values as codified in the Constitution and the rule of law, the uphill battle to reclaim our place at the apex of the moral high ground will grow steeper. For now it is the patriotic duty of those of us who view recent events as detrimental to America’s long-term safety and prosperity to say just that without fear or reservation. I say this because we are exceptional in many ways, though it is important not to cross the thin line between “exceptionalism” to “arrogance.” I propose that America knows how to do the right thing and she has the institutions and framework to do so successfully. Once again America can proffer herself as the emblem of freedom and compassion that the rest of the world wishes to emulate – but it starts with we the people.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Racial rhetoric and ugly truths

The recent faux-controversy over the legitimacy of President Barack Obama's citizenship has got me to thinking even more than usual about matters of racial justice, social inequities and the realities of 21st century American values. My inner discourse on these matters has ranged everywhere on the emotional spectrum from despondence to unbridled optimism. My emotional and intellectual volatility on the issue of race relations is due to my tremendous empathy for those affected by the double-headed pandemic of discrimination and intolerance.

As most of us know, a certain unnamed buffoon has been making a lot of noise lately about the citizenship status of President Obama and demanding that the president produce his birth certificate to prove that he is in fact a natural-born citizen. Much to my dismay, Mr. Obama descended to the depths of the levels in which the aforementioned buffoon has established pernanent residency and publicly produced an official copy of his long-form birthcertificate. Controversy solved right? Nope. Next (originating from the same idiotic source) came challenges to the academic record of the president which, by every measure imaginable, is unquestionably impressive and remarkable. And in yet another conspiracy theory emanating from the vast expanse of ultra right-wing delusions comes the accusation the President Obama did not author his two critically acclaimed memoirs but rather that it was done by Bill Ayers. It is difficult to pinpoint which of these three exercises in lunacy is least credible and most devoid of factual grounding; when taken as a package deal however they do shed  a bit of light on a disturbing pattern gaining momentun in what passes for public discourse today.

All three of the ludicrous charges listed above carry with them racially charged undercurrents - doubts over President Obama's citizenship ("Come on, look at him!"), questioning his academic record ("Come on, look at him! Obviously he was the beneficiary of 'affirmative action' and therefor undeserving.") and of course, in the fundamentally backwards logic of those making these accusations, it appears to be unfathomable that a black man could have composed not one but two brilliant memoirs. The individual mentioned above, and the growing population that he speaks for and to, are engaging in a classic case of race-baiting which is simultaneously illuminating a vile reality about this country.

The ugly truth is that we are not in the midst of a "post-racial" or "color blind" revolution in American popular society; in fact, it seems as though racial tensions and discontents were merely flowing beneath a thin facade of increased harmony, waiting for a galvanizing event to act as the catalyst for renewed animosity. That event came in 2008 with the election of a black man to the highest office in this country, perhaps in this world. At the time I was (along with many other observers) in a state of euphoria with the apparent death of racial intolerance, heralding the dawn of a new age of unity and cooperation. Less than a month after President Obama was sworn into office in January of 2009 the Tea Party, which has engaged in many public displays of overt racism, held its first rally and has continued to hold numerous rallies and protests ever since. The dream of a more accepting and tolerant America hadn't lasted very long.

The reaction to the election of President Obama in combination with some disturbing facts about the plight of the black community in this country points to the disheartening realization that pervasive disparities, distinguished largely by race, still exist to an alarming degree. African-Americans compose 13.6% (42 million) of the American populace and over a quarter of them (25.8%) live in poverty. The median household  income among the African-American population is $35,575 as compared to the national median of $52,029. The unemployment rate among African-Americans (16.6%) is nearly twice the national average and African-American males comprise 35.4% of the 2.1 million Americans who are currently incarcerated. According to the Department of Justice, African-American males are six times more likely to end up in jail or prison than their white counterparts and only 18% of all African-Americans achieve a bachelor's degree or higher. Other metrics, such as obesity and hypertension rates, highlight persistent health issues in the black community in addition to the pervasive economic and social obstacles mentioned above.

The circumstances faced by the black community paint a bleak picture for the prospects for a more harmonious and integrative America. The election of President Obama served in some part to awaken latent racial intolerance and animus among some segments of the American citizenry when it should have had the opposite effect. I am however optimistic for two reasons. The first of which is that high school dropout rates among African-Americans are dropping: 80% of African-Americans have achieved their high school diploma which is a marked improvement over where that rate has been in the not-so-distant past. In my opinion, the first step in the process of increased enfranchisement and greater political influence is education.  I firmly believe in the old axiom about knowledge being power.

The second cause of cautious optimism is the very fact that posterity will now have to recognize and report that a black man did in fact hold the most important position in the world. Children who are just now beginning or will soon begin their education will be introduced to the American presidency and American history as a whole with the inclusion of a black man occupying the White House. To put it in terms of one of my other passions (baseball) Barack Obama is the Jackie Robinson of American political history. Just as it is now normal and uneventful to see baseball players of all colors and backgrounds, future generations will no longer find it unimaginable for a non-white person to be the leader of the free world.

Similar to the evolution of baseball however, just because one exceptional individual has forced a paradigm shift does not mean that everybody is ready to accept that change just yet. It will be a long and difficult process - as are all important social changes - and not all people will cooperate. The hope lies in what Abraham Lincoln referred to as the "better angels of our nature" winning out over the ugly truths that plague us. Only time will tell.

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