New Year's Wish: Getting My Country Back

Of all the things I want most in the new year, getting my country back tops everything. No, not the way those who want to turn the clock back to when the president wasn't a black man with foreign lineage and an agenda they see as "not American."

What I yearn for is when my country was, in fact, a beacon for democracy, for high principles and ideals. When the elected president was seen to be, and widely accepted to be, president of all Americans. When the party not in power not only did not want the president to fail, did not work for him to fail, but wanted him to succeed for the benefit of the country. When fomenting hatred of the president was not only un-American, but uncool.

During the Great Depression and the global war that followed, my father took great pride in being at once a staunch Republican and a strong supporter of the president, who happened to be a Democrat. My father did not see any contradiction. The country was beset with dire economic problems, as it is now, and we faced implacable enemies, as we do now. In such circumstances, my father would say, we are Americans first, party members second, and the president deserved our support. Not a blank check, but also not knee-jerk opposition just for the sake of it.

Back then, and in the years that followed before the dawn of polarized politics, facts mattered more than willful ignorance. They mattered more than the fear and fiction purveyed today in the name of defending American freedoms and values. Civility in debating the issues of the times was preferred over today's tendency to attack loudly, often in the key of nasty.

I want back a country wedded to the rule of law and the principles of human rights. When the law was not bent to justify a litany of abuses more identified with dictatorships I covered as a correspondent in junta-ruled Argentina, Pinochet's Chile, Franco's Spain, Salazar's Portugal, Noriega's Panama.

When terrorism was treated and prosecuted mainly as the hateful, hideous, cowardly crime that it is, not as a "new type of war" that justified injustices and suspension of civil liberties in the name of national security. When invading and occupying a country that did not attack us would not so easily be dismissed as a misstep, with no one held accountable for the human devastation inflicted in the process. "Collateral damage," we called it, and still call it, so we don't have to talk about children and other innocents caught in the crossfire. The inevitable "price of war."

When not so long ago you would not think of mistreating prisoners taken on the battlefield and elsewhere, let alone torturing them, not because international law forbids it, but because our moral compass rejects it. When our leaders and lawyers would have rebelled at the notion of indefinitely detaining prisoners beyond the reach of the law, beyond the inconvenient legal restrictions of inadmissible evidence, unlawful detention and other checks and balances of American jurisprudence.

I want a country that embraces without hesitation the words of English philosopher John Locke, cast in bronze on a monument to 9/11 victims at a law school a family member attended: "Wherever law ends, tyranny begins." Words that ring as true today as they did when he wrote them more than three centuries ago.

I want back the country I was proud to be part of growing up during the "good war" of the last century when Americans joined together on the home front and the war front, concerned more with what united them than divided them. I want the lump I always got in my throat when the Stars and Stripes passed by, when "the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air" resounded in my ears.

I want back a country that understood that its biggest strength was its democracy, not its military might. A democracy that can serve as a model for others and a reminder why we are Americans.

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