The Unbelievers

Guilty.

I confess.  To those who saw me as--accused me of being--an unrepentant non-PC believer in American "exceptionalism", a (dare I use the word) "patriot", you were right all along.  I don't wear a flag pin on my lapel but that's only because I'm not big on adornment (I didn't even have my own campaign bumper sticker on my car); in my heart, though, I wave the flag.  And I do so because I (a) love this country, and (b) believe that it is different, better, "exceptional."

In the strange ways we screw up the language, many Americans are derided today as super-patriots, America-first chauvinists, cross-my-heart flag-wavers, yet they are the people who don't really believe in America at all, who finds its values quaint or ridiculous, who don't trust its most fundamental principles, its systems, its people, its institutions.  Who, when it comes right down to it, think the Soviets might have had it right after all.

Who are these people?  These non-believers?  

Ironically, they are the people with the loudest voices demanding that since we have enemies--a lot less fearsome than either the Japanese or Germans during World War II--we should toss away our archaic ideas and structures, dismiss the Constitution as a meaningless essay unsuited for the modern world, and run, cowering, for the nearest deep hole.  They are the people who praise the use of torture (if it was good enough for the Inquisition and Mao, why isn't it good enough for us?); who would lock suspected evildoers in dark cells and hold them captive until they die or are condemned in show trials that forego every modern means of evaluating guilt or innocence (good enough for the Tower of London and the king's chopping block).

The latest of these scornful dismissals of what Superman called "truth, justice, and the American way" are the bleating idiots who now demand that the fool with the bomb in his undies be kept safely away from American courts and American prisons.  They scowl and declare that our American courts will not, or can not, convict terrorists.  They seem pretty damned certain of that.  Which is weird since nearly 200 terrorists have been convicted in our federal courts in the last nine years (that's 65 times as many as have been convicted by military commissions).  They also fear that if sent to American prisons, these undie-bombers will spend their lunch breaks walking the streets of Leavenworth, Kansas, sending clerks scurrying behind their counters and mothers fleeing with their children.  These are the same prisons that have held not only a host of truly scary individual bad guys but Capone-era Chicago mobsters and connected contract killers for the international Mafia, none of whom have been seen shopping at a Leavenworth WalMart.

America is exceptional because it believes in fundamental values.  Oh, it doesn't mind killing the bad guys and neither do I; find 'em guilty of murder and string 'em up; that's fine with me--after they've been found guilty (by a jury, not a president).

The problem here is that those who are whining the loudest, whether it's a nutcase Senator or a callous talk show ratings-chaser, are, at bottom, people who apparently don't really buy into America.  They claim to be patriotic - that is, to love their country - but they seem not to really understand what, exactly, America is, or what it stands for, or what "to be American" really means.  America is not 50 chunks of land, lakes, fly fishermen and football teams; it's an idea, a concept, a commitment to, well, "truth, justice, and the American way."  And that's why we have courts, not show trials and not summary judgments.  It's not because we love terrorists, it's because we hate them and we are going to subject them to the thing they most fear--justice, democracy, the rules of a free society. 

Those who insist that we set the rules aside claim to speak for "conservatives."  What utter nonsense.   I serve on the board of directors of The Constitution Project.  That organization recently released a paper called "Beyond Guantanamo: A Bipartisan Declaration", which called for accused terrorists to be tried in federal courts - our American courts - not in so-called "military tribunals."  A lefty declaration?  Among  the 130 men and women who signed - diplomats, judges, prosecutors, military intelligence officers - were high-level officials from both the Nixon and Reagan administrations (including Ronald Reagan's FBI director, high-profile leaders of national conservative organizations, former outspoken conservative leaders in Congress).  The fact is, there is nothing "conservative", nor "patriotic" about this blatant rejection of the American system of government and justice, this sneering distrust of the courts, the lawyers, the judges, the juries of rank-and-file Americans.  To dismiss the system the Founders created and embrace the model favored by Joseph Stalin and the Taliban is not to love America but to loathe it.  Those who do so, believe a lot of things, but believing in America isn't one of them.  

Presented by

Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

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