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Tyler Rosenbaum '11: Ever vigilant

Sean Hannity is fond of proclaiming America the "greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the Earth." Bill Maher has an interesting response: "America must stop bragging that it's the greatest country on Earth and start acting like it."

Obviously Bill Maher's job depends on his saying controversial or provocative things, so all his observations should be taken with a grain of salt. But perhaps it's worth considering: What, exactly, makes America so great?

Of course, there are numerous possible justifications for the contention that the United States is the greatest country in the world. One plausible explanation would be our overwhelming military force.

Surely, this is how nations used to be differentiated; whichever country could both conquer and avoid being conquered was considered great. However, I like to think that our military is so powerful because our nation and citizens are great, and not vice versa.

Perhaps our economic superiority sets us apart? Given the fiscal predicament we've gotten ourselves into (and the fact that the European Union actually has a higher GDP), I should certainly hope not! Indeed, this argument would be akin to declaring Bill Gates the best person on Earth.

No, I think it is an uncontroversial proposition that our values — our definition of who we are as a nation — and not whom we can defeat or what we can buy set us apart. But it must also be more than simply the values we hold, for the United States is not the only country to believe in democracy, the rule of law and equality of opportunity.

Rather, it is our centuries-long commitment to perfecting these values and our conviction that they transcend borders that distinguishes our experience from that of so many other countries and has led to the widespread admiration and emulation that the United States has historically enjoyed.

This column is not meant to be a simple paean to America, however — I'm sure I hardly need to be selling it to this audience. The point is that if we want to continue being the greatest country, we should not forget or compromise the values for which we stand.
George W. Bush's administration illustrated the extreme dangers of indifference toward defense of our values in vivid clarity: Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, water boarding, extraordinary rendition and other national shames did more to tarnish this country's reputation and self-image than any military defeat or economic catastrophe could.

Though the Bush administration deserves condemnation for the violence it did to our national values, just electing President Obama was not enough. Yes, his administration has taken positive steps, but the American people must maintain constant pressure on him and on the Congress to repair the damage that has been done and to ensure that it never recurs. The integrity of our values should not depend on the benevolence of any president, especially since the president has a strong incentive to maintain an expansive definition of executive power.

Most importantly, however, the ongoing national project of repairing our image and reforming our actions will require the constant vigilance and continued dedication of an active citizenry. Without this, politicians will almost certainly cave to fear mongering, and we will be doomed to repeat the disastrous mistakes of our past.

Last week, we found out that certain individuals who have confessed to perpetrating the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 will be tried in a civilian court in New York City. While some expressed satisfaction that these murderers will finally be brought to justice, others were outraged that terrorists would be put through the American justice system, saying they don't deserve it.

But the American ideals — concepts like "innocent until proven guilty" — should not be privileges for Americans only. If the government can't prove you did the crime, you should not be put in prison for years and years. This should be equally true, whether you're a citizen of the United States, or of Canada, France or Pakistan.

There is still tremendous resistance in Congress to the Obama administration's plans to close the prison at Guantanamo and to try terrorists in American courts. Is the justice system that was good enough for Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber and the Green River Killer insufficient for terrorists?

The point of bringing suspected terrorists to American courts is not to give confessed murderers an opportunity to escape. It is to prevent the government from imprisoning anyone it labels a terrorist for as long as it wants. The Bush administration did this with the Uighurs in Guantanamo, who have been imprisoned there for eight years despite their acknowledged innocence.

A great nation does not torture, does not imprison individuals it cannot prove did anything wrong and does not shy away from justice. It may sometimes be unpalatable or difficult for America to follow through on the promise of its values, but they should never be compromised.

America's life-long and impassioned advocacy of freedom, equality and justice has bought it the moral superiority it has long enjoyed and has made it the greatest nation on Earth. Nothing is worth bargaining that away, and Americans should guard that honor jealously.


Tyler Rosenbaum '11 holds these truths to be self-evident.




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