My Turn: Why shred American values?

Posted: Tuesday, March 21, 2006

I was a kid in the 1950s, growing up in the afterglow of the Second World War. I went to the movies and saw how the little guy could stand up to the bully and how ingenuity and a can-do spirit could save the day. America was about fair play, common sense, justice and the rule of law. I was confident that Americans stood tall and had a natural reflex for doing the right thing.

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Later, of course, I found out that things weren't quite so simple. The interests of the rich and powerful weren't always aligned with the ideals I'd been taught. The world wasn't perfect, and neither were our politicians, but American values still seemed resilient enough to withstand periodic abuses of power. But one now has to wonder if our value system can withstand three more years of the Bush-Cheney administration.

For instance, I was brought up believing that good people don't pick fights and democracies don't attack other countries. Even as I write this, Bush is restating his doctrine of pre-emptive attack. Will we as a country ever again be able to say to others that aggression is morally wrong?

I was brought up believing no one, not even the president, was above the law. Bush admits he approved warrantless wiretapping of Americans, a clear and extremely serious violation of the law and the Constitution. But he claims to be above the law. Not only that, he has taken to writing "signing statements" when he signs new bills, essentially saying that the new law won't apply to him. It is impossible to state how crucial this issue is. If the president can thumb his nose at the law of the land, then we are essentially agreeing the Constitution isn't worth a dime.

I was taught to play within the rules. But George, who has been able to play by a second set of rules pretty much all his life, apparently doesn't believe in that. He has turned his back on the International Court of Law and the Geneva Convention in hopes that we won't be held to account for torture or other war crimes. Of course the rest of the world sees this. Our kids see this. We play by our own rules at our own peril.

When I was a kid, I heard about people being kidnapped and held without charges in places like North Korea or Albania, not in the United States. Our laws prevented that, but I guess not anymore. Are we so afraid a terrorist might attack us that we're willing to chuck our legal system and make things up as we go? To make matters worse, the government has bungled almost every terrorist prosecution it has tried in the past four years.

Now, as we begin the fourth year of our occupation of Iraq, with our troops still fighting in Afghanistan, we find our country mired in a war that has lasted almost as long as our involvement in World War II. Neither bin Laden, nor al-Zawahiri, nor Mullah Omar, nor al-Zarqawi, has yet been brought to justice. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people have been killed, and yet our forces remain huddled in defensive enclaves, unable to move freely about the countries we are told we are liberating. This is a hard pill to swallow.

The attacks of 9/11 were horrific and traumatic. But almost half a decade later it seems clear our response has been ill conceived and ill managed. We have transformed those events into an ongoing nightmare that has no end in sight. American values, for the most part, survived two World Wars (when we battled several powerful countries), and the Cold War (when we faced nuclear annihilation) without having been compromised to such a great degree. Why then should we be shedding our liberties and laws when challenged by a few old men living in the mountains of Pakistan?

• Ken DeRoux is an artist and Juneau resident.

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