Nations large and small say high-sounding words about themselves, and then find reasons for not putting the words into practice. Our former enemy, the Soviet Union, spoke of liberty and justice for all, just as we do. Even in South Africa, I’m sure they say something similar in their pledge to the flag.
So, if not high-sounding words, what makes a country great? Is it finally only wealth and power, things like a fat GNP, a powerful military? Or does greatness also entail living up to stated principles, if not to perfection, at least to the point that a country remains recognizable in terms of what it says it stands for.
In the United States, our greatness is no smirking matter. We take our words about our greatness very seriously—words in our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence. To us, these are precious documents, precious principles—the right to assemble, the right to worship God in one’s own way, the right to speak freely, the right to bear arms, a government of the people, by the people, for the people, etc.
But one sure sign that a country doesn’t believe in its own stated greatness anymore is a hyper-insecurity to its critics or supposed enemies. I knew the United States was deteriorating in this regard because of its recent “brave” shows of force in Grenada, Panama and Iraq, in which, with our superior wealth and technological power, we inflicted great damage and casualties on these little countries. (Desert Storm was aptly described as World War III meeting World War I.)
Now a little faction in our own country, the Branch Davidians, a couple hundred strong, has also incurred our official wrath, and we have turned their compound, including men, women and children, into ashes.
Were they really so dangerous? Or is this great big U.S.A. so insecure about itself? It’s the second possibility that begins to frighten me. This aggression looked very bad on TV: tanks against rifles, the whole brute force of the most powerful nation on earth bearing down on one tiny group. For what? To liberate the children? Does turning them to ashes liberate them? From all I could gather, these people were there because they wanted to be. The early accusations of sexual abuse didn’t later stand up to the least bit of scrutiny.
If it weren’t so horrible, then it would have been embarrassing to watch our internal armed forces incinerating this one expression of religious freedom while at the same time our president, in tones of great solemnity, was dedicating a monument to the victims of the Holocaust, “lest we should ever forget.”
I don’t care if the Branch Davidians were different. I don’t even care if they were weird. America is supposed to stand for diversity, the toleration of differences. That is our basic principle, if we stand for anything. The relevant question is only: were they breaking any laws? If so, then bring the alleged wrongdoers before the bar of justice and try them before a jury of their peers. If they are found guilty, punish them. If they are innocent, let them go free.
I can never root for tanks against rifles, any more than I could support a big kid beating up a little kid on a playground, no matter what the little kid might have done. I innately distrust bullying in whatever form it takes and I always assume that a bully is deeply insecure.
From all reports, to have picked up the leader of the Branch Davidians, David Koresh, and brought him before the court would have been a simple matter. Apparently he jogged freely outside the compound. He shopped weekly at the Waco Walmart. He frequently engaged the local population, if they were interested.
However, so sadly, we took another way, and made him a martyr, along with his followers—85 men, women and children who were willing to die for what they believed.
Where is my America? Who was crazy?—those inside the compound reading their Bibles by searchlight, or those outside, astride their tanks, blaring all night through loudspeakers the sounds of rabbits being slaughtered. Who are my friends here? Who really is brainwashed?
“Attagirl,” President Clinton complimented Attorney General Reno for her courage. Attagirl? Courage?
How America longs for a real leader, to preserve at least the semblance of the noble words our ancestors once spoke for the world to hear. But a nation finally gets only what it deserves.