No single event in my lifetime has galvanized our country like Sept. 11, 2001. Only two other events, the assassination of President Kennedy and the first moon landing, simultaneously turned every American’s head, followed by their hearts, in the same direction.
But those events don’t compare with the unimaginable evil of what happened in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on that day. Our emotional response to those events - “outrage, resolve, patriotism” - is understandable and appropriate.
I fear that our fervor can close our minds to careful consideration of the actions we take born out of our outrage. Our nation has been the target of a horrible act, and we long for a quick, decisive response - sometimes unwilling to consider its greater damaging effects. In a mood for retribution, we don’t have patience for those who call for caution or who criticize actions that have been taken in response to 9-11. Some say such people are unpatriotic or even that they support terrorists. Nothing is further from the truth.
I find it difficult to say that I am proud to be an American, because pride should be reserved for those who were instrumental in making America what it is, such as the founding fathers or veterans of the military. Those bumper stickers that say “Proud to be an American” should read, “Blessed to be an American.” With that blessing comes the responsibility to make this country the best it can be to its citizens and to the world community.
As the only remaining super power and the primary force in shaping the world, we must be sure that our actions, even those properly aimed at eradicating terrorism, don’t trample the basic ideals that are the foundations of our freedom and the freedom we wish for others around the world. The care with which we dispense influence in the coming years will signal to the world our true intentions.
There is built-in danger with any political leader. Each has an agenda that he believes is right. Add to that the toxin of power and you are one small step from “the end justifies the means.” Hitler and Hussein practiced it to a ghastly degree. Nixon and his staff justified Watergate that way. Liberal or conservative, despot or duly elected executive, leaders all look for the short route to the desired result.
This is where we citizens and the press step in. It is important for us to ask questions about the actions of our government and demand satisfactory answers. Show me, tell me “not with rhetoric, but with facts.”
During Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein pursued Nixon’s the-end-justifies-the-means shenanigans tirelessly. Though some called them unpatriotic, they kept asking the questions and demanding the answers. Their perseverance led to one of the greatest successes of our democratic system over the abuse of power. Tenacious pursuit of accountability from our public servants is the height of patriotism and emblematic of why this is a great country.
I don’t suspect Mr. Bush of any such mischief, but in this climate of patriotic fervor, he is getting a free pass on some key questions: Where are the weapons of mass destruction? Were we oversold on the threat Iraq posed? Was intelligence information doctored or edited to inflate the Iraqi threat and our appetite for war? The questions have been asked, but we seem satisfied with less than satisfactory answers. Is the huge patriotic sentiment in our country intimidating the press and others from persisting in seeking substantial answers to these questions?
This piece is not intended to be anti-Bush or anti-Iraq War. But if we are to be the best nation we can be, and the good influence that the world needs now, we have to look carefully at everything we do. When we rush to the closet to get our American flag, we cannot afford to hang up our critical thinking. There is too much at stake.
Ron Erskine has lived and worked as a builder and brewery owner in South County for 20 years. He resides in Morgan Hill, California with his wife and two children.
Copyright 2003 Gilroy Dispatch