Remember What Makes Us Great

by Eli Beckerman

October 1, 2001

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"We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who posses power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight."

    –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967

The United States of America -- melting pot, democratic nation, superpower -- is about to embark on a mission which became hazily defined on Tuesday, September the 11th, 2001.

Faced with countless charges of arrogance and selfishness from the international community, America knows her place, and that includes influencing the world through foreign policy and international relations. Sometimes, for sure, we have crossed the line.

In order to ensure the democratic principles that form the basis of our way of life, we have had to extend our military, our industry, and our government to the status of a superpower. With the decline of the Soviet Union we are the only clearly recognizable superpower today.

There have been many bold claims by our "leaders" since the recent tragedies on our soil. There has been lots of hype, lots of jingoism, lots of blood-curdling calls for war and bloodshed. Trying to make sense of the mess, we have jumped to many immediate conclusions, some of which have been narrow-minded, others of which will prove true. The claim is that our response won't be borne out of the desire for retaliation, but instead, will be aimed at preventing a similar attack from ever occurring again. If this is true, and I believe it is, then we are obliged to proceed cautiously and wisely.

The values that shape who we are as a nation, as a people, are less than obvious. It's not that we have been naturally endowed with the wisdoms that have kept us functioning despite our differences. They came to us over the years, through various struggles, through our own suffering at the hands of others. Numerous patriots, philosophers, poets -- heroes -- imparted their wisdom throughout the short lifetime of our nation. They include generals who bravely led us through necessary battles, and pacifists who tried to shape our foreign policy to fit more closely with an ethical stand we could be proud of. They include brave souls who selflessly risked their own lives in order to protect the lives of others and the flag they loved -- not the symbol itself, but what it represented. And they include brave souls who took to the streets in protest against wars that were not justifiable.

We had leaders who pointed out that we fell far short of the idealistic view we had of ourselves. And they changed us for the better. We had leaders that showed us we were right to be proud. But where are our leaders today? What would Martin Luther King, Jr. be thinking of our responses to date? What would John Fitzgerald Kennedy be doing in George Walker Bush's position?

In response to the terror attacks that brought thousands of Americans to their deaths in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, we have responded with a show of might. We have talked savagely about returning the favor to Osama Bin Laden. Even the Taliban should be scared beyond belief for harboring him and worse yet, helping him. Perhaps we should assault these murderous foes without regard for their safety, their rights, or their beliefs. But what exactly does this accomplish? And how exactly do we do this without bringing more tragedy to the good people of Afghanistan, without increasing sympathy for the fundamentalists' cause, and without further engendering the idea that the United States of America as a nation, as a people, is a legitimate target? How do we do this without disregarding the very values that define us?

My answer is this. Share with the world ALL of our wisdom. None of it has come easy to us, and we should not expect it to come easy to beleaguered peoples the world over. We are seen by many as an enemy -- a legitimate one -- because we have not gone out of our way to impart the broad array of insights that we grasp.

Regardless of our problems, our divisions, and our vices, we are unique in our history and our philosophy. We thrive from our diversity -- not our tolerance, but our respect. We are a nation that is without a defining race, religion, or viewpoint. Everyone's thoughts are valid, as long as they do not infringe on another's rights. Through discourse and debate, and the ballot of democracy, we settle our differences. Some choose bombs or guns, but we try to discourage them and often punish them. Our founding fathers came to these lands full of wisdom and personal struggle, yet still retained traces of wickedness. Through time we have sculpted a more virtuous society, though it is far, quite far, from perfection. Nevertheless, in today's world, especially with this newly crafted global community, we have a lot to offer. If we want our foes to drop their arms, we must put ours aside for now. With open arms, and an open heart, we can convince the people of the world that we are, not divine, but righteous and honorable indeed.

Trust us that people of all backgrounds can live together in this world. We know we are not setting the best example right now, but we all know it's possible, and we are all doing it on the same soil. New York City happens to be the finest example, and I am wounded that she has found herself as a target. Perhaps we should be held accountable as a people for whatever policies we have and actions we take as a nation. Maybe that's what this attack was all about. Honestly, we are naive about what goes on in our name. But never are we so arrogant and hateful that we would celebrate the destruction of another human being. And that is why I despise anyone who thinks the attack on our country was appropriate or just. I understand the venom that has fueled much of our reaction, but I don't think retribution is a suitable and forward-thinking response.

The blind patriotism that has spread throughout this nation faster than the airwaves could induce is frightening. I consider myself, in contrast, a true patriot -- one who is unashamedly proud of the strengths of his country, yet simultaneously willing to recognize and shine a light on its flaws.

We cannot preach, and we shall not invoke God -- because that is precisely the type of behavior that is responsible for the tragedy. While a great many Americans have turned to their religious and spiritual leaders for comfort and advice, a great many others believe in no God, or believe in many, or call theirs by another name. And that is what makes our country a beautiful place to live. We cannot shove democracy or religious tolerance down people's throats. We must guide by example. What does it mean to say "God Bless America?" It's every bit as inane as baseball players thanking God for their victories. It is meaningless. It is rhetoric. And it is below us. This is a time of acceptance, and yet supposed patriots beat down Arab-Americans in random acts of hate.

The media tells us we have been united by this horrific act -- a crime against humanity. Bush's idea of a "quiet, unyielding anger" would likely find its root it an underlying hatred among us. It is painfully clear that racism still permeates the United States, and we don't have to look beyond the recent riots in Cincinnati for proof. Mistrust is rampant. Now, more than at any other time in our history, we must examine our beliefs and trumpet the principled convictions that have made us solid. It is the bully who brags about his strength, and the self-assured, quiet one who is truly strong.

Emma Lazarus was an American poet whose 1833 sonnet about the Statue of Liberty graces a plaque on the statue's pedestal. And this is why we are truly proud:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch whose flame
Is imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep ancient lands your storied pomp!" cries she with silent lips.

"Give me your tired your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

For humanity's sake, let us not make the wrong decisions in our fight. Let us remember what makes us great, not just simply think that we are.


"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge-and more."

    –John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961


       Eli Beckerman was born and raised in Queens, NY. He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and Wesleyan University, with degrees in Physics and Astronomy. He is currently an astrophysicist and computer specialist at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (since June, 1999). Beckerman is a member of The Mystic River Greens (MRG) in Somerville, MA, a group that focuses on Green issues and is affiliated with the Massachusetts Green Party.

       Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Eli Beckerman 2001. All rights reserved.

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Published October 1, 2001
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