By Kevin Enochs
We are in the beginnings of an election season. That means you’ll hear a lot about how America is ‘the greatest country on the Earth.’ You will also hear talk of ‘American exceptionalism.’
These two phrases basically mean the same thing, that the United States is both the greatest
living expression of the democratic ideal, and also the most powerful and influential nation in
At any given moment either of these things may be true. But not always.
Power, in its expression is dangerously agnostic, and almost always good intentions count for
nothing when a nation flexes its military muscle. Even when our military is used for the
imposition of order, as was attempted for example in Somalia in the 1990’s, things can go
terribly, and tragically, wrong.
But in light of the Paris attacks, the United States is entertaining the idea of closing our borders to these refugees due to the fact that some of them may be as dangerous as the people who struck Paris. It is a necessary conversation, but the outcome will tell us a lot about our nation character. It gives us an opportunity to prove that the concept of exceptionalism – America stands out because of its democratic ideals and liberties – is more than a colonial anachronism.
But to do so, it must take a page from history and expand upon it.
For over a hundred years, the United States military has been deployed overseas, engaged in and guarding against wars borne of imperialism (WWI), evil (WWII), ideology (The Cold War) and ethnic strife and religion (everything since Vietnam). If one is totally honest, America has a mixed record when it comes to war.
Saying that puts one at odds with many hawks, who argue that America can impose democracy and human rights through military strength alone. That conversation is ongoing, and will not be
But there are some things that the United States and its allies have done that suggest what we as a nation are exceptional indeed.
Look back to June of 1948, when the Soviet Union was attempting to push the western powers out of Germany, specifically out of Berlin. To do so, they closed every highway, railroad and canal into the western part of the city. In effect, they laid siege to the city in the hopes the prospect of two million starving West Berliners would force the West out.
But in a historic underestimation of western resolve, Britain, France and the United States refused to abandon Berlin, and the decision was made to supply food and other basic necessities for millions of people by air. When the operation began, the American commanders leading the operation determined they could fly about 300 tons of supplies daily into West Berlin. In order to keep the people alive, they needed to haul in three thousand tons, and that would take 1000 flights every day. President Harry Truman responded by ordering more planes to the region.
You know the rest. The Soviet Union reopened supply corridors to Berlin almost a year later, after allied planes had delivered over two million tons of supplies. It was, without a doubt and by all accounts, one of the Western world’s finest hours.
And now, faced with the largest mass movement of humanity since the 1940’s, the United States
looks across the ocean and is faced with a simple choice: we can help, or we can retreat.
We are protected by oceans, and surrounded by allies. And yet there are those of us who are cowed by the faceless threat of radicalized terrorists and radicalized and young men and women who learned their military prowess from playing video games. Doesn’t the concept of exceptionalism demand that we refuse to fear such as these? More importantly, doesn’t the concept of exceptionalism demand that we open our arms to the world’s ‘tired, poor and huddled masses?’
The killing done in this country by licensed gun owners proves that no amount of vetting can
remove the threat of violence. And the sheer amount of people asking for sanctuary makes it impossible to guarantee that none will enter our borders with ill intent.
Americans have been warned before and responded well to President Franklin Roosevelt’s wise belief that the only thing we have to fear “…is fear itself.” Fear would have us retreat. Fear would have us withdraw a helping hand. Fear would deny hope to those who have none.
Certainly we are a more exceptional nation than this. History will be the judge.