Saturday, July 25, 2015

Time for a New Anthem?

The last lines of the first verse of "Defence of Fort McHenry," now known as "The Star-Spangled Banner" are fairly well-known.

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Referring to the United States as "the land of the free and the home of the brave" likely became popular about 30 minutes after the song itself did, if not before. Which is fine - people like to find virtues to attach to themselves. But it's important that we stop short of believing our own hype, because it often blinds us to instances where our reality and our rhetoric don't match up. In a way, describing the whole of the United States as "the land of the free and the home of the brave" has always been bogus. "Defence of Fort McHenry" was written in 1814 - the end of legalized slavery was still some 50 years in the future and it's difficult to see any particular bravery in laws like the Sedition Act of 1798.

Freedom and bravery are not, regardless of how we may have become accustomed to viewing them, unambiguously Good Things. You can do a complete SWOT analysis of them, and identify inherent Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. But, understandably, we tend not to, usually limiting ourselves to extolling our own perceived Strengths and the Opportunities we understand that they bring us. But whether or not we understand the Weaknesses and Threats in our society, they are there, and given long enough, they will assert themselves.

Retired General Wesley Clark, one-time candidate for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States and Franklin Graham, son of the famous (or notorious, depending on one's opinion) Evangelical preacher Billy Graham have become strange bedfellows in illustrating this. Note President George W. Bush's remarks about the War on Terror that began after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in September of 2001.
We're taking action against evil people. Because this great nation of many religions understands, our war is not against Islam, or against faith practiced by the Muslim people. Our war is a war against evil. This is clearly a case of good versus evil, and make no mistake about it -- good will prevail.
President George W. Bush. Ontario Convention Center, Ontario, California. January 5, 2002
And President Obama has followed up on this theme, telling the United Nations that "At the same time, we have reaffirmed that the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam." Clark and Graham, however, have concluded that we ARE at war with Islam, and, therefore need to return to the sorts of practices that were employed against citizens of the Axis nations - and American citizens whose families hailed from same - during the Second World War - only this time, we need to treat members of a religion as potential enemy agents.
We have got to identify the people who are most likely to be radicalized. We've got to cut this off at the beginning. There are always a certain number of young people who are alienated. They don't get a job, they lost a girlfriend, their family doesn't feel happy here and we can watch the signs of that. And there are members of the community who can reach out to those people and bring them back in and encourage them to look at their blessings here.

But I do think on a national policy level we need to look at what self-radicalization means because we are at war with this group of terrorists. They do have an ideology. In World War II if someone supported Nazi Germany at the expense of the United States, we didn't say that was freedom of speech, we put him in a camp, they were prisoners of war.

So, if these people are radicalized and they don't support the United States and they are disloyal to the United States as a matter of principle, fine. It's their right. And it's our right and obligation to segregate them from the normal community for the duration of the conflict. And I think we're going to have to increasingly get tough on this, not only in the United States but our allied nations like Britain, Germany and France are going to have to look at their domestic law procedures.
General Wesley Clark, interviewed by Thomas Roberts on MSNBC Live
Graham goes somewhat further than Clark, effectively saying that we shouldn't wait for signs of radicalization.
We are under attack by Muslims at home and abroad. We should stop all immigration of Muslims to the U.S. until this threat with Islam has been settled. Every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be radicalized--and they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad. During World War 2, we didn't allow Japanese to immigrate to America, nor did we allow Germans. Why are we allowing Muslims now?
Not exactly what comes to mind when I think of a commitment to courage and freedom. And of course, Moslems are not the only threat that people are sounding alarms about - Donald Trump is making waves with his implications (to put it mildly) that the government of Mexico is slyly undermining the United States by exporting its undesirables (along with a few good people) north of the border.

On the one hand, I get it - the Constitution is not a suicide pact. Or, as Thomas Jefferson put it: "[S]trict observance of the written law is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to the written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the ends to the means."

On the other hand, necessity, self-preservation and saving our country when in danger are all very subjective considerations (especially when they aren't contained in the written law), and history has shown us that we haven't been as good at understanding what actually constitutes and existential threat as we may have thought that we did - after all, Jefferson made his statement in defense of purchasing the Louisiana Territory from France - which hardly seems like the desperate act of a threatened nation. Likewise, Clark's, Graham's and Trump's visions of necessity, self-preservation and saving our country look suspiciously like things that confirm the fears of conservative, older, White Christians who feel that the changing demographics of the world risk doing unto them what their parents, grandparents and earlier generations did unto others. Which is understandable. Payback is a bitch, and I don't blame people for wanting to avoid it being visited upon them, especially when the actual perpetrators of the crimes for which payback is being sought are long dead.

But there is a difference between a perceived threat to one's own interests, and an actual threat to the enduring safety of a nation. It's helpful to keep that in mind. We can't be "the land of the free and the home of the brave" if we allow people to be locked up every time something convinces a segment of the mainstream that they have something to be afraid of.

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