Op-Ed: No Exception to Our Values
When our Founding Fathers set about crafting our Constitution, they did so with the belief that freedom is a beacon toward which, given the opportunity, every person will naturally gravitate. That belief, I believe, was central to Ronald Reagan’s strategy for confronting communism, a strategy that culminated in the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union shortly after he left office.
Today the world is gripped with another battle between the forces of liberty and progress on the one hand and those of repression on the other. If we remain loyal to our basic ideals, our commitment to liberty and the rule of law will guide us to victory. If we do not—if we carve out exceptions to those freedoms and craft technicalities to subvert them—we will almost certainly fail.
We can already see warning signs. The discovery of memos justifying the notion that the president and anyone acting on his behalf are exempt from legal provisions preventing the torture of terrorism suspects is troubling. The prison abuse scandals in Iraq and elsewhere hint at the injustices that become possible when our leaders treat legal protections against abusive treatment as inconveniences to be subverted. So too do the detentions of U.S. citizens as so-called enemy combatants without access to judicial review.
These are but a few of the developments that, together, raise the disturbing prospect of our government splintering off segments of the population and classes of official behavior and exempting them from our fundamental values. This cannot be tolerated. Not only does it run counter to our longstanding traditions; it also undercuts our nation’s role as the preeminent exemplar of liberty and human dignity. In short, we deserve better.
It is not enough for our leaders to extol the virtues of freedom and the power of the rule of law to transform despotic regimes. Because our nation strives to be the shining city on a hill that President Reagan described, our actions are more important than our words. Because ours truly is an exceptional nation, every battle, every interrogation, every investigation must be conducted in the most exceptional manner.
There can be no exceptions to our basic ideals. Loopholes or technicalities cannot free our officials from them. Nor should those ideals be viewed as limitations on our ability to defend our nation or way of life. To the contrary, it is those ideals and values that define us, that differentiate us from our enemies, and that give us strength.
In times of uncertainty it is comforting to know that our leaders are protecting us, that they are doing everything in their power to detain terrorists and get the information needed to prevent attacks. But we—our leaders and our people alike—must always remember that the war on terrorism is not just a conflict between armed forces. For us, victory is not on the battlefield. We cannot win by strengthening our borders, rounding up terrorists, or confronting those who harbor them. These things are all important, but they are not enough.
At its core, the war on terrorism is a clash of ideas, a battle between those who love and respect freedom and the rule of law and those who do not. Our commitment to liberty, our sense of justice, and our respect for the rule of law are precisely what our enemies are targeting. We must make sure that our commitment to them remains unbowed.