A group of war protesters in Spokane reported to police and the news media this week that they were assaulted by a man who seemed not to share their opinions. It wouldn’t be the first time that such demonstrations provoked a threatening reaction.
Local authorities say they’ll notify the FBI of the possible civil rights violation, because the allegation, if true, amounts to an infringement of the men’s freedom of speech. The facts are under investigation, but it goes to show what a loose grip we Americans keep on our country’s core values.
It’s true that when dissenters take up placards against a popular cause, the great majority of offended passers-by show their disapproval in acceptable ways, but that’s small comfort. It’s the guy who punches you in the jaw who makes the lasting impression.
Likewise, it’s the relative handful of undisciplined military personnel whose inexcusable treatment of Iraqi prisoners — in contrast with the honorable conduct of most U.S. personnel deployed there — has shamed the United States. Embarrassed U.S. officials, grasping for ways to minimize the damage, have come up mostly with hollow rationalizations.
The culprits are just a minority. Besides, what they did doesn’t begin to compare to the atrocities committed under Saddam Hussein’s regime.
That’s like telling the host on whose white carpet you just spilled red wine that it’s only a small stain; most of the carpet is just fine.
Generations of Americans have grown up believing their country is a special place that embodies a set of high-minded beliefs — liberty, equality, human dignity, justice, impartial application of the law, uniform recognition of rights. That entitles us to the world’s respect, but only if we embrace all those values and cultivate them both at home and around the globe.
The uniform American service personnel wear stands for those values. The oath they swore was a promise to uphold them. If we really want to support our troops, we will hold them to a standard of conduct befitting the American heritage, and we will trust them to achieve it.
And we will live out our own faith in the American ideal by respecting the tradition of robust debate of public issues. We will discard the feeble notion that somehow, in a time of war, the rights that have made us strong for more than two centuries are somehow too weak to withstand the stress of political discord.
U.S. military personnel in Iraq have been betrayed. Betrayed by unworthy colleagues whose vile behavior undermines the claim that American forces are in Iraq to liberate it. And betrayed by citizens at home who dishonor the fundamental civil rights that give legitimacy to our government and the armed forces who defend it.
Being better than Saddam Hussein is not much of an accomplishment. Americans have their own standard to live up to, and it’s not good enough that just most of us do so.
It takes only a splash of red wine to ruin a white carpet. And it takes only a handful of miscreants to sully the reputation of a great country.
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