I believe that America is a land of ideals. In fact, I believe that America is an ideal, more than a land. We have served as a beacon of hope for millions of depressed and dispossessed citizens of the world, not because our shores welcomed them, but because our values welcomed them. Refugees from injustice, failing economies, and other social maladies flocked to America because they were told that – here – human life was valued, individualism was hailed, and freedom was prized above all things.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, as I stood in the Operations Center of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, managing the chaos of a government trying to cope with a tragedy unmatched since the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, I caught glimpses of the destruction that flashed across the television on the wall. My efforts were focused on the details of preparing the nuclear industry to raise security at the power plants, but in my quiet moments I experienced waves of sadness washing over me. And I couldn’t quell the anger that surfaced at odd moments, anger that was slowing morphing into hatred.
We didn’t deserve the attacks, I told myself. Innocent people were murdered as they went about their daily routine. Savage destruction of lives, merciless random slaughter. I winced as I felt the inevitable emotion of hate overwhelm me.
Over the next five years, I continued to work to make such attacks less likely or, if they came in spite of our work, less damaging. Mixed in with the publicized security measures were many steps taken that were not reported in the newspapers and not known to most Americans. Some secrecy is necessary in any conflict between two opposing sides, but as events unfolded I realized that secrecy was being used as a cover to shield other, less noble enterprises from view.
The photographs from Abu Graib were wrenching. Seeing other people humiliated and tortured by Americans – even a professed enemy – was very disturbing. Today, the images still haunt us.
Reports of secret prisons and unspeakable behavior – justified as the only means to extract vital information – added to the mix of emotions. This wasn’t America, I thought. These weren’t the values we held; this was not the America that for two centuries had steadfastly insisted upon keeping the moral high ground.
There were other disclosures of illegal wiretapping of thousands of American citizens, then of databases of all phone calls made. The ironically named Patriot Act legitimized spying on people through library records, credit card transactions, and travel accounts. The targets were not known terrorists. We were the targets – all of us.
And, of course, there were the detainees, people who might very well have committed a terrible crime, but who were being held without access to the Red Cross or provided means of communicating with their native countries. People who were held without legal charges, without counsel, without recourse, for years. A textbook passage from long-ago college courses flitted across my mind as I recalled the Star Chamber and the secret trials that early Americans declared unjust and inhumane. This couldn’t be America doing this, I thought.
For five years we have watched as the freedoms that made America great were dismantled. We have witnessed abuses of power at frightening levels and scope. We have heard our leaders admit to actions that in another time would have been considered criminal offenses, claiming these actions were necessary in a self-made war, admitting these actions without a trace of concern or guilt, without even appearing to notice how un-American they were.
I’ve always been proud to be an American, but in recent years there’s a sad blend of shame stirred in with that pride. I gaze out distractedly, focused on some unseen object, and wince at the shame, and I shake my head when I think that America was not meant to do this. America is an idea, it is not just a country. When we surrender our values, when we compromise our freedoms, the idea goes away. If we protect our country at the expense of our ideals, America no longer exists.
Today, as I reflect on the two emotions of hatred and shame, I can’t tell which one is more painful.
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