Over this last week we’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly Americans. All have been on bright, unavoidable display. Consider:
A couple of very bad Americans committed a heinous crime. Despite the amateurish execution of a poorly designed plan, they managed to kill several innocent people and injure scores of others. Smoke and flames rose; fragments penetrated skin and bone. Some lost limbs. Others will remain traumatized for a very long time. And an American tradition is now forever scarred.
Immediately, though, many, many good Americans—thousands, it seems, if not more—expressed first their shock and dismay, and then their support, in response to the events in Boston. People are donating to the man whose now-damaged boat served as an unsuccessful hideout; first-responders are rightfully having their moment in the limelight; even New Yorkers put aside their love/hate relationship with Beantown in a touching moment at Yankee stadium—one the most hardcore fans on both sides of that rivalry could never have imagined.
But then the ugly Americans came out, emerging from all the usual places. Journalists on CNN forgot what their job titles mean and spread scurrilous rumors and false information. Elected officials rapidly fashioned brand-new bully pulpits in order to use the tragedy to deliver self-serving, ideological messages. Conspiracy theorists, living as they do in a surreal, Dali-esque world where nothing is ever as it seems, have elevated the hash tag #falseflag back to the top of the Twitter charts, broadcasting their beliefs in a government conspiracy 140 characters at a time.
And underpinning it all: the definition of the word “enemy.”
There is no question that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are our enemies. They fashioned an act of terror, one designed (we're assuming) to deliver an ideological message and an equally ideological response. But so, too, is Timothy McVeigh our enemy, who’s bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City served the same purpose even though the message was different. And so, too, is James Holmes, he of the midnight movie shootings, and Eric Rudoloph, the Olympic Park bomber, and Steven Spader who, along with two accomplices, brutally macheted a family in Mont Vernon, NH for no reason other than to see what it felt like to kill. These are all our enemies, all people who would terrorize us, who have terrorized us.
Ahh… but times are different now.
Now is a time when some want to reclassify people who believe different things than we do, particularly if those different things have anything at all to do with a religion we don’t much like. Many are now crying out for the surviving Tsarnaev brother—an American citizen—to be classified as an enemy combatant, a status that would essentially suspend all of his civil rights. Fortunately, the White House declined to do so, recognizing—rightfully, in my opinion, that Tsarnaev is a criminal. He is no soldier, no state actor.
A criminal. Criminals in this country get due process. It’s one of things that our country does right, and one of the things we should never let go of. Instead we should wonder at those who would take it away, who would see something they don’t like, and claim that “they” shouldn’t get the same rights the rest of us are entitled to.
Somewhere out there, real terrorists are laughing, noting ironically the speed with which we neuter our own values out of fear. And those who would enable them, those who would claim that one particular type of person with one particular type of beliefs should be singled out for harsher treatment… well, they who would make such claims are the people we should truly fear, truly think of as “enemy.”
Picture Credits: "Evil Empire" by John Kaminski; Pogo, by Walt Kelly