What’s the most powerful weapon in America’s vast arsenal, as our nation seeks to defend itself against enemies like Daesh (ISIS), and domestic enemies too? What’s the one force that more than any other has the power to defeat those who would seek to threaten the United States of America and its citizens? Those both home grown and foreign, who’d like nothing better than to make us all afraid, tempt us to question our place in the world? Or to put this question another way, what makes America strong, great?
It’s not boots on the ground. It’s not drones dropping bombs from on high. It’s not Navy Seals stealthily carrying out assassinations in the dead of the night. It’s not heightening our government surveillance of, or paranoia about, those we deem as “different”, or “the other”. It’s not bowing to the bellicose, xenophobic, divisive declarations of Presidential candidates who use fear as their electoral strategy of choice.
Have you guessed yet what America’s “secret weapon” is?
One truth which more than any other makes us great as a people. Strong and true. Sober and wise. A leader in the world, a country which other peoples in other places can look to for inspiration and as an example. It’s not our stupendous wealth. It’s not “Star Wars”. It’s not even the amazing diversity of our nation, the fact that we are the most eclectic collection of religions and ethnicities and races and cultures in the world today.
There are strange and fraught days in our civic history. We are in the election season now and in many ways America seems to be literally running scared. Looking over our collective shoulders in fear. We are a people in terror about terror. Gun sales are at all times highs. Presidential candidates all vie to out macho each other as to who is tough enough to confront and overcome our opponents. And so you might think that our most potent weapon is a real weapon. Lock and load. Take aim. Kick some butt. BOOYAH!
Have you guessed yet what makes the United States, even still, a “shining city on the hill”, as Ronald Reagan once declared? Some final hints.
This “weapon” is very old, 227 years to be exact. Much of the time it’s made of just paper, as seemingly flimsy as the parchment it was first printed upon. Any citizen can use it and every American, every single last one, is protected by it. It can bring down a President or a pauper and it applies equally to all, regardless of their life status. Though originally created by an elite group of educated wealthy men, its defensive capabilities are egalitarian and more powerful than any gun or mob or rabble or politician. It’s stable and yet it can also be changed, amended when necessary, by the people.
It’s the United States Constitution.
It’s what makes us powerful in the best sense of that word. It embodies the hope that we live by laws and not by lynch mobs, by statutes and not stacks of campaign contributions. It’s what marks us as a unique people in the history of the world and it’s not clear to me that many, or even any, of our current Commander In Chief candidates truly understand this reality. At just 4,400 words long, this one document may be the most potent symbol of true American power and true American greatness which still exists.
There’s a wonderful scene from the recent Steven Spielberg movie “Bridge of Spies”, which tells the true story of lawyer James Donovan, who was charged with defending the accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, at the height of the Cold War, in 1957. It was a time when we were very afraid: of enemies foreign and domestic, of certain immigrant groups and peoples, of political ideas which did not adhere to certain narrow definitions.
Donovan goes to a bar and meets a CIA agent, who asks the lawyer to not be such “a Boy Scout”, forget the rulebook and instead reveal what Abel is talking about to Donovan, a clear violation of the right to counsel and the right to confidentiality in that constitutionally protected relationship.
Says Donovan, “My name is Donovan, I’m Irish, on both sides…father and mother… you’re German, right? But what makes us Americans? Just one thing, one, one...the rulebook. We call it the Constitution and we agree to the rules, and that's what makes us Americans. It’s all that makes us Americans. So don't tell me there’s no rulebook.”
What makes America strong? What makes America great? When we are most afraid, what can save us from ourselves and our enemies? The rulebook. The Constitution. The document our elected leaders pledge to “protect and defend”.
Now that’s a weapon.