When I tell someone that I’m an American I am conveying not just where I’m from, but in a larger sense, who I am. Today, I’m no longer sure who that is.
I served in the United States Air Force from 1961 to 1981 and during that time I served in a number of different countries. Most people I met in these places invariably admired Americans. They always wanted to shake my hand. It may be that they idealized us. I know they thought everyone in America was rich. But more than that, I believe that they saw America as a model to which other countries could aspire; that “shining city on a hill” that former President Ronald Reagan spoke of when he said that we Americans are “the last best hope of man on earth.”
I was proud to be a person thought to reflect the grand idea of America. I knew that America was not perfect, nor was I -- we were never perfect -- but never have we been so imperfect.
At one time admired and respected for our sense of decency and fair play, we are today justifiably reviled for the abuses at Abu Ghraib, the abomination that is Guantanamo, the injustice of extraordinary rendition, and the evil and hypocrisy of enhanced interrogation.
Envied for the freedoms we enjoyed and admired for the physical and intellectual courage we demonstrated in earning those freedoms, we are looked upon today as a country, gripped by fear, meekly acquiescing to spying on our fellow citizens, and teetering on the edge of a police state.
And where so many other countries struggled valiantly to light the torch of democracy, and we were looked to as a beacon in the surrounding darkness, now that beacon flickers and dims as our elected representatives sell their votes, gerrymander congressional districts to favor their party, and deny the vote to minorities and the poor.
As for being rich, America, once the world’s biggest creditor nation is now the world’s biggest debtor nation. We have for more than 3 decades failed to address our energy future and now find ourselves held hostage to exponentially rising energy costs. We are spending borrowed money to pursue an ill-conceived and executed military strategy of preemptive war, and prioritizing military spending over education, healthcare, science, and economic opportunity programs for the growing proportion of Americans (some 13%) living in poverty – today, 37 million.
I want an America with a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and a people unwilling to permit the erosion of human rights that is a legacy of that government. I want an America that has faith in its leaders, its institutions and its self. And an America whose faith in a higher being is an individual choice that manifests itself in acts of compassion and generosity towards its citizens and its neighbors. I want an America that values not material wealth per se, but the wealth of talent, ingenuity, and spirit that create the quality of life that we all work to afford. I want an America that abrogates to no nation leadership in exploring the frontiers of knowledge. I want an America whose conquests are of hunger, disease, poverty, ignorance, deceit, and hate, at home and abroad.
I want my America back, my last best hope.