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A Defense of American Patriotism

Several weeks ago, famed liberal activist Barbra Streisand voiced the sentiments of an overwhelming majority of her colleagues when she mistakenly attributed the following quote to William Shakespeare:

“Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into patriotic fervor. Patriotism is indeed a double-edged sword. It emboldens the blood, just as it narrows the mind.”

While Ms. Streisand was referring to the prospect of war with Iraq in her misquotation of the great bard, many on the left have come to view the resurgence of national pride that followed the September 11th attacks as a sinister force that will ultimately result in the erosion of American democracy at home and militaristic U.S. policies abroad.

A Viewpoints piece in last week’s Harbus echoed these concerns, comparing the Bush administration’s policy of detaining some Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to the inexcusable detainment of Japanese-American citizens during the Second World War. The article went on to suggest that U.S. treatment of these suspected terrorists was akin to “imitating our enemies’ autocratic and inhumane tactics” and wrote that “[p]atriotism cannot consist of treating our enemies as they would treat us.”

These arguments are representative of an ideology of moral relativism that distorts the nature and intent of our country’s actions and elevates the world’s most dangerous terrorists and their supporters into common criminals.

The men held in Camp Delta were captured fighting for the Taliban, an outlaw regime famous for its brutal repression. This government allowed Osama bin Laden’s organization to fester and grow for years within its borders, ultimately resulting in the tragic loss of thousands of innocent lives on September 11th. While the government claims that the vast majority of those held in Cuba are actually members of al-Qaeda, there is little doubt that all of the detainees, either directly or through their support of the Taliban, enabled that organization to commit mass murder.

The actions of the U.S. government could not contrast more sharply with the brutality of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Despite reporting of austere conditions in the camp, the recently released detainees freely admitted that they were not mistreated by American interrogators. All prisoners were given access to running water, a Koran, an adequate supply of religiously appropriate food, showers, shelter, and other amenities. Can anyone credibly argue that detaining these individuals under uncomfortable but ultimately humane conditions is the moral equivalent of the atrocities carried out by al-Qaeda and the Taliban?

Critics of the current U.S. policy argue that denying legal representation to the detainees is a violation of American principles. These objections ignore the fact that there is broad precedent for detaining captured enemy combatants during time of war for a variety of reasons.

First, the conditions and context of war make it virtually impossible to apply the legal standards required by civil law to large numbers of captured soldiers.

Second, U.S. law correctly makes a distinction between those who commit crimes in the United States and those who act to harm U.S. interests abroad and appropriately extends greater legal protection to the former.

Furthermore, the ability to effectively gather intelligence and question prisoners would be severely constrained if the legal standards governing due process were applied to military detainees, invariably resulting in a weakened national defense. For these and many other reasons, nearly every nation on earth has treated prisoners captured during times of war differently from domestic criminals.

The fact that the detainees in Camp Delta “do not enjoy the full panoply of rights guaranteed by the Constitution” does not, as the “Redefining American Patriotism” author suggests, mean that there is no check on the actions of the U.S. military and government. In his critique of current US policy and law, the author stated that “even if the military chose to systematically murder all of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, their families would have no legal redress in a U.S. court of law, because foreign nationals on foreign territory do not have access to U.S. courts.”

While this is technically correct, the U.S. Armed Forces are governed by extensive laws and regulations that ensure that the military, unlike our terrorist enemies, behaves in a manner consistent with the nation’s humanitarian values. Violations of these laws are aggressively investigated and enforced by an elaborate system of military criminal justice. Despite the relative freedom afforded by the administration’s current policies, the U.S. military is not in any immediate danger of descending into barbarism.

The advancement of vigorous dissent, guided by the dictates of conscience, is indeed a central element of true patriotism and democracy. The right and duty to publicly disagree with government policies that one finds objectionable is a defining feature of American democracy and one of our dearest values.

It is wrong, however, to suggest that the U.S. government has sunk to the levels of the terrorists we are fighting. Patriotism has indeed been a guiding force in American policy after September 11th, and it has enabled us to liberate an oppressed nation and improve international security. We have also treated our enemies humanely while preserving our domestic freedoms.

Patriotism of this kind requires no “redefining.”

November 12, 2002
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