November 15, 2001
What an amazing country this is. I recently read a book about three of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison. While the book focused on these three, it really was about the 1787 Constitutional Convention, during which pen was put to paper and a document was created, the Constitution of the United States of America. Its very existence makes us unique in the history of the world. It proclaimed that this country is governed not by a person or a group but by laws. The brilliance of the Constitution is staggering. The fact that it has stood the trials of 225 years is staggering; wonderfully so.
Did you know that the Constitutional Convention was characterized by bitter arguments and the occasional fist fight? The genius of our Constitution arose out of one very messy, violently argumentative convention. At some point, just about everybody there accused everybody else of trying to destroy our young republic. In trying times, it’s useful to recall that.
We are a government formed and maintained by thoughtful and wise laws set down a long time ago. The Constitution ensures that we are not governed by passions or emotions of the moment, but by thoughtful considerations rooted not in government propaganda, but public debate and democratic choice.
The founding fathers’ great contribution was the creation of a government that not only promised that power would be in the hands of the people governed, but created a system of checks and balances that guaranteed it. But that guarantee is only as good and solid and viable when the people understand their responsibilities to it.
They created three branches of government to ensure that each aspect of rule would be tempered by two others. They created a congress with two houses — and each house, the House of Representatives and the Senate, would be there to temper the other.
The true genius of the founding fathers was their understanding of the inherent dangers of power. With that genius they insured that government could never get out of hand. That is why we have elections every two and four years. The founding fathers dictated that the power of the presidency was so great, no one person should be entrusted with it for more than four years at a time.
They really distrusted power a lot. So, we have the Fifth Amendment, the guarantee that no person can be forced to testify against themselves. They thought this provision would best protect the rights of the accused.
They established a legal system rooted in trials by juries of peers, not trials by government officials. These men trusted “we the people,” and had a healthy distrust of government — even the one that they were working to create. If you read the Constitution and its history, it is so apparent that the founding fathers wanted us to distrust, to question and to actively hold our government accountable because they knew that power was a dangerous thing.
Every democracy in the world has modeled its creation on our set of laws. Yet, during the history of our country, there have been many times when the Constitution has been kicked around. These were times of fear and anger. It was ignored outright throughout seventy years of slavery, and then during another 100 years during which black Americans were disenfranchised. It was ignored during the “red scare” of the fifties. It was ignored at the beginning of the Second World War, when we put Japanese-Americans into internment camps.
It was ignored when we devoted ten years to a war in Vietnam that was never ratified by Congress, never actually decided on by the American people. A war in which 15,000 young Americans died without the people of the United States ever discussing it or voting for it, as our Constitution demands.
What proves that the Constitution is so extraordinary is how much damage we have inflicted on ourselves when we’ve ignored it.
Good governance requires thoughtfulness, not passion. It demands that the important political decisions that affect our lives are made by we the people, and not just a few that we have temporarily placed in power. It suggests that we must always be vigilant against abuses of power by those we elect.
There has never been a time when it was appropriate to ignore the wisdom in that document. But people may argue for it, hoping to capitalize on the fear and anger of the times.
Is this one of those times?
I too am in mourning over the events of 9/11. I also know that fear may be the most seductive of all human emotions. How quickly we surrender to it, and in surrendering we react, we run, we attack, we get irrational, and we create the fertile soil for self-righteousness, hate and a violence that may know no bounds.
I have been struggling with whether, and then how, to express my thoughts, feelings and knowledge about what I consider the dangerous and foolhardy war that we are engaged in without disrespecting or causing pain to many of us here in the Hudson Valley who directly suffered from these attacks. There are so many now mired in grief, sadness, loss, anger and rage.
Can I argue that what we are doing in response to our grief and our fear is terribly wrong?
Can I suggest to each of you to remember what you already know, that decisions made in the heat of passion are almost always bad and destructive decisions?
Should the questioning and challenging of what our country is doing right now wait until it is more acceptable? Will that be too late?
Is a state of anger and fear a sound place from which to decide to go to war?
When I was a civil rights organizer and anti-war activist during the Vietnam War, my friends and I were regularly called un-American. This month, a new phrase has emerged for those of us who question what our country is doing, who question the propaganda machine of the most powerful nation the world has ever known. Apparently, I have evolved from being merely un-American and become downright anti-American.
It’s like some new kind of propaganda evolution. Attacking dissenters during the civil rights and antiwar movement of the ‘60s didn’t stop us. Actually, it made people like me even more determined. It is as though the powers decided that calling those who disagree un-American wasn’t very effective, so they have now decided to up the ante by calling us anti-American.
To that, my immediate answer is that you can take your anti-American label and shove it in the very same place I suggested you shove the idea that dissent was un-American thirty-five years ago.
And pal, my grief for those we lost is just as powerful as yours. But my commitment to figuring out what is ultimately best for this country (especially in light of our history in Central Asia as well as the Arabian Peninsula) is equally as strong.
Is it anti-American to demand to know what is really going on here and how it began?
Is what this particular government doing in my name right or wrong?
It’s wrong, and not just morally. Given what the government says its strategic goals are, it just takes a bit of common sense to say that they are either lying about those goals and have other agendas at work or they are setting us up to accept what we would not normally accept as rational, critical, thinking citizens.
In Vietnam, we sent in a few advisors, then a few more. We accepted a few casualties, then a few more. Then they said — and this was eventually proven to be a State Department-sponsored lie — that two small torpedo boats had attacked an American destroyer that just happened to be in their waters. So, we got all riled up and sent 100,000 combat troops, which grew to become 500,000 troops. Our successes from there on out were measured in body counts. A few million dead Vietnamese men, women and children and 55,000 dead U.S. troops later, and all we said was “Oops.”
They start out slowly, these wars — just bombing selected targets and well, you know, in war civilians will get killed. “But what can we do?” we ask. We have to do something. And while we aren’t really flushing out the terrorists who we believe are living among the people we are bombing, we’ll still send in a few more bombs and a few more military personnel. Oh well, look, the terrorists are really over there, so maybe we need to drop just a few bombs on, let’s say, Iraq. And oops, some Iranian shot at one of our B-52s, so we’ll drop a few bombs on them, too, just a few.
Most Americans know that there are a lot of people in the world who really do hate us. Many of them are in Central Asia and South America. Most Americans actually believe that people hate us because we are a free democracy. That’s what our government tells us, anyway. There are tens of millions who hate us because we are free.
Oh really? Is that true? Is it possible that there may be valid historic reasons having to do with the role that the U.S. has played in those regions which has led the people there to dislike us? If we took the time to study just a bit of history, we might understand what is going on and just perhaps begin to do things that diminish (instead of increase) that hatred, and thereby reduce the possibility of more attacks like the ones we just suffered.
There have always been those who capitalize on fear and hatred. This cat Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network are doing pretty well at that. Their goal is pretty straightforward, but what’s important to understand is that they rely heavily on our assistance.
Their goal is to stimulate a global war between Islam and the West. In order to do that, they would have to get a lot of the one-and-a-half billion Muslims in the world to distrust and hate the U.S. Getting the U.S. to retaliate is the first part of their plan.
We claim to be bombing Afghanistan to flush out the terrorist cells we think are there. This administration says that this is our goal. The U.S. appears to be winning a battle here. We’re not sure what it is, but that many bombs dropped on that small of a country must be winning something.
On the other hand, judging by the reactions in many parts of the world to our efforts in Afghanistan, the bad guys may actually be winning the war.
I have no doubt that the terrorists held two celebrations: first, a small party when they knew that they had successfully attacked the heart of America, and then a real party when the U.S. started bombing Afghanistan, a country of poverty-stricken shepherds living under a repressive regime who we just happened to support not all that long ago.
By the way, did you know that the Caspian Sea region has what may well be the world’s largest supply of oil reserves? The problem lies in getting it out. Afghanistan occupies a strategic position between the Caspian and the huge markets of the Indian subcontinent and East Asia. It’s prime territory for building pipelines. Check out Unocal Oil’s relationship to American foreign policy.
While you are checking out Unocal, also check out a company called Raytheon. They make missiles. Just check its current stock valuation. Hey, investing in war always pays off.
There are those of you who would say, “Just who does Terry Roberts think he is, challenging the word, the trust of our government and our military!”
I’ll tell you who I am: anti-American!
I’m a guy who understands why our founding fathers insisted that if we go to war, we are supposed to have our representatives in Congress decide it. This guy understands why the framers of the Constitution were so adamant that the military be subservient to civilians. Oil wasn’t a big deal in 1777, so they didn’t contemplate the idea that the government could become subservient to things like big oil.
But they insisted on freedom of speech and assembly, because they knew how important dissent was to sustain freedom and democracy.
How do I know this stuff? I study it. It makes me crazy that most of my neighbors, even today, spend more time studying which television to buy than the history of this country’s role around the world.
I hate to admit it, but at times, I think that our commitment to democracy and freedom is secondary to our collective commitment to ignorance.
The First World War began with the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand by some wacko terrorist. At the time, nobody knew who the Archduke Ferdinand was. More than a million deaths later, we all knew his name. The power of a nuclear bomb begins with one atom splitting another. A very small event. Then two atoms split into four, and it just keeps going until the universe is obliterated. Wars begin in the same way.
The builders of America, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John Madison, John Adams and the others were pretty explicit about where our allegiance belongs. And it’s not to any particular temporary governing group, such as George Bush and Dick “Oilhead” Cheney. No, those cats knew that our allegiance had to be to a set of principles laid out in that inspired document, the United States Constitution. That’s what gets my allegiance.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (and we need to add women) are created equal.” It’s a powerful statement. If that’s true, it means all people, and all would include the very same people who seem to hate us. If they are as equally as human as we are, is it possible that there are reasons behind their hatred?
In the end, freedom and democracy are only as strong as our commitment to being knowledgeable about those things our government does that affect our lives and the lives of others.
Until we figure this out, I will cut you what I think is a reasonable deal: you can feel free to call me anti-American, as long as I can feel free to call you stupid