Wednesday, December 22, 2004

A Nation of Principles

Robert Steinback in the Miami Herald looks at the survey by Cornell University.

Call me crazy, but it disturbs me that 44 percent of respondents to the poll agreed with one or more of the following statements: Muslim Americans should be required to register their whereabouts with the federal government; mosques should be surveilled by U.S. law enforcement agencies; the government should profile citizens as potential threats because they are Muslim or of Middle Eastern heritage; and Muslim organizations should be infiltrated by undercover agents to monitor their activities.

Why not, I figure 44 percent of you are saying, if it makes our country safer from the threat of a terrorist attack? Which is to say, Don’t the ends justify the means?

Set aside for the moment how different the poll results would have been if “Christian Americans,” “churches” or “Jewish organizations” were substituted.

The poll question suggests that after more than 228 years, Americans still haven’t grasped what it means to be an American.

No particular ethnicity or religious affiliation is required to be a U.S. citizen; you’d think we’d know that by now. The United States was conceived as a nation of principles, not tribes. Yet 44 percent of us believe rights in this country should be rationed by tribal affiliation.

But our motives are good, you might be saying. Those who have nothing to hide should have nothing to fear, you might argue.

It’s so easy to justify why other people should tolerate having their rights compromised. But consider some other findings of the poll: Six of 10 Americans feel individuals shouldn’t be allowed to stage protests or publicly criticize the government during a time of war or crisis. (None, evidently, thought this might encourage a government to create a crisis.) A third of respondents felt the media shouldn’t cover those protests or criticisms. More than a third felt it was acceptable for government to curtail certain un-American activities even if they’re constitutionally protected. Almost half would give the government more freedom to monitor e-mails and online transactions.


Any superiority American culture can claim came exclusively from the principles upon which our social institutions were built. Individually, we are just as prone to racism, extremism, fanaticism, injustice, hatred and brutality as anyone else in the world. What has set us apart are the grand tenets that have tempered our worse tendencies, civilized us and — over time — elevated us above the tribal grunting of our forebears. Scrape away at those principles, and you scrape away at the only thing that ennobles us as a people.

I can’t top that.