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.