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I received a forwarded email recently that quoted the District Judge who sentenced the notorious terrorist shoe bomber.  The original author of the email was clearly impressed by the judge’s determination that terrorists “hate our freedom”, angered that the news media had failed to highlight the judge’s glowing tribute to America, and hopeful that the email would make its way to “some teachers and college professors looking for something to reinvigorate their students with a sense of patriotism, pride and understanding of what this country is all about.”

I guess the good news is that the email inspired me to write, even if it was only because I was offended by the protracted political grandstanding and disturbed by the blatant sheep-mentality that has become so prevalent in our country.  I share my response below:

Terrorists are cowardly and sick for preying on innocent people.  Like other violent criminals who commit acts of murder, when properly convicted in a court of law, they should be punished harshly according to constitutional provisions set forth for equitable distribution of justice.

 BUT… the conclusion made by this judge and many Americans that terrorists commit their heinous acts out of a disdain for American freedom is grossly misplaced, woefully ethnocentric, and flatly wrong.  The US is hardly the only or the best example of democracy on the planet.  Democracy is currently the most popular form of government in the world, and numerous democracies have consistently outperformed the US in voter participation, levels of pluralism, and protection from government intrusion in civil liberties.  In fact, many people fail to recognize that our Constitutional rights, while in existence since 1791, have only been equally applied to all American citizens for less than 100 years.  We are quick to gloat that we are one of the largest and oldest democracies on the planet, yet our form of democracy was seriously flawed for most of its existence.  Women (half our population) have only had the right to vote in the United States for 88 years and segregation and discrimination based on race, religion, sex and national origin were legal and prevalent less than 50 years ago.  In fact, many countries recognized women’s suffrage before the United States.  Further, over one-third (usually more) of qualified citizens refuse to exercise their right to vote or challenge public policy in our democratic process compared to much higher participation rates in many European democracies.  There are also other democracies that grant far more power to the people, permitting citizens to directly place bills on the ballot, offering direct votes on referenda and allowing them to propose reconsideration of current laws. 

While we should appreciate and defend our Constitution and do everything in our power to strengthen and refine our democratic system, we must recognize that America’s freedom is not the perceived threat to foreign terrorists.  Most accurately, we need to be concerned about the message our foreign policy has been sending to the global community for the past 100 years or so.  Presently, America has not only the largest military budget in the world, but a larger military budget than all other countries combined.  We maintain over 700 military bases across the world and have perhaps the most extensive and consistent history of military engagements.  Terrorists do not hate our freedom.  They despise our self-serving imperialism and self-righteous indignation.  While their methods are desperate and deplorable, their message should cause every freethinking American to search for answers. 

Love for one’s country is noble, but blind patriotism is the death of democracy.  The strength of a free nation rests in the ability and demonstrated commitment of its people to govern themselves with critical thinking and honest evaluation.  Freedom is not a gift the American people received long ago to be worshipped or propagandized.  It is an enormous and essential responsibility that requires free people to encourage visibility, honor diversity, and promote human liberty. 

As a college instructor, civil rights attorney, and zealous patriot, I am always searching for lessons to remind my students of their vital role in our democratic system, but the message of this judge not only fails to identify correct motivations for terrorism, it fails to inspire the courageous critical reflection necessary for self-governance.  Essentially, democracy is power to the people.  But people are only empowered when they refuse to abdicate their thinking to the authority invested in their elected leaders or cover shameful truths with flags and fireworks.  Patriotism is a NOT prideful declaration, it is an act of service wrapped in gratitude, humility and the steadfast pursuit of truth. 

 

I apologize for my lengthy absence from the blogging world.  July was a rough month for me.  After an exhaustive and expensive battle with the emergency vet, I was forced to put my 11-year old dog to sleep on July 4th.  She was truly one of my closest friends and ending her life was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made.  I will find the time to post about her soon. 

Three weeks later, my uncle passed away quite unexpectedly from a heart attack at age 60.  His death was a crushing to blow to our family and to his community.  As an 8th generation Vermonter who served as a local and state elected representative and the director of the annual 100-mile race to raise money for the Vermont Adaptive Ski Program, his life has had a profound and lasting impact.  His memorial service was held this weekend at the PICO Mountain ski facility with over 500 in attendance.  Acting as Mistress of Ceremonies, I opened the occasion with the following remarks:

I am honored to have been asked by family to speak today on behalf of my beloved uncle.  Despite the limitations of language, I hope to convey to you even a fraction of the depth of such an amazing man by sharing a personal glimpse into one of our last encounters.

 

The last time I stood on this beautiful mountain, she was dressed in her winter whites.  Like most people, I had come here to ski, but as a native Floridian I arrived in this magical foreign world of frozen crystals and powered hills with an odd combination of wonder and trepidation.  Like an infant learning to walk, I would stumble about in my bulky, wet books, bewildered by the streams of people flowing to and from the busy lifts. 

 

But even in my awkwardness and anxious curiosity, there was an unwavering feeling of security that came from the company of my Vermont family.  I may have been a flatlander, but in the company of the Hutchinsons, the mountain was my second home. 

 

After my aunt Leslie ensured everyone was suited up and I shared some friendly teasing with my cousin Rich, we all headed to the bunny slope for a little impromptu instruction from Julia.  She patiently walked us through the basic techniques, joined me on a couple runs down the smallest hill, and then my uncle Hutch offered to escort me on the blue trails.  Although I was still secretly terrified, their encouragement and supportive confidence had me convinced. 

 

Despite a clumsy tumble on the lift dismount that left us sitting in a snow bank, Hutch cheerfully assured me of my ability and followed my painfully slow descent down the mountain with his gracious and attentive direction.  Even when my fear would paralyze me and my mood dissolved into stubborn negativity, he would stop beside me with an understanding grin and joke that it was a good spot for sightseeing.

 

And after I lost control on an icy patch and rolled wildly into a frantic face-plant, my uncle was instantly by my side to assess the damage and assist me to my feet.  Once he determined that I had managed to escape serious injury, Hutch smiled at my tearful cheeks and commented that my stopping technique was most impressive.  “You didn’t even drop a pole or lose a ski,” he laughed.  “If you’ve got to go down, you might as well give it everything you’ve got.”

 

This was just an afternoon on the mountain with my uncle, but the same tenacious spirit and genuine joy he shared with me in that moment was always present.  Hutch gave life everything he had.  He embraced each moment with a fullness and intensity that reflected the very essence of living.  He seized each day with a contagious enthusiasm that made everyone he met more alive in every way.

 

Henry Miller wrote that “the aim of life is to live.  And to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” 

 

Hutch lived in a constant state of awareness.  When he was with you, his presence was real and undeniable.  He did not lose time in past mistakes or future plans, but inhaled life with a grateful and humble appreciation for every breath, each conversation, each silent night under Vermont’s star-filled sky. 

 

Many times death is shrouded in regret or a sadness that comes from unspoken words or unfinished business.  When we lose someone we love, especially when it seems their death was before their time, we are tempted to grieve for what could have been.  But while each of us has suffered a tremendous loss, today we must celebrate the amazing gift that Hutch brought to us.  For Hutch was a man whose death is not an ending, but a beginning of our awareness of his unmistakable presence in our lives.  He was a man whose voice filled a room, whose spirit knew no bounds, and whose strength transcended generations.  He was the rock of his family, the center of his community and an inspiration to all who knew him.  There is no greater testament to his impact than to look around this room here today. 

 

Hutch lived his life with such integrity and purity of character that even those who disagreed with his politics were compelled to respect his presentation.  He was a man that anyone could admire.  Hard work lit a fire in his heart that was only rivaled by his ability to play with every ounce of his being.  He was the type of human being that reminded all of us what is truly important: each other.

 

So today we live for Hutch.  In his memory, seek joy in every moment, find a new appreciation for being alive, and like Hutch, go forward and lead fearlessly, love unconditionally, and live with everything you’ve got.