Friday, March 18, 2011

American Exceptionalism

Clearly one of the most troubling issues during the Bush administration were the “detainees” at Guantanamo Bay. Then, Senator Obama, while campaigning to replace Bush in the oval office, promised that he would close the prison one year from the time he took office. He signed an executive order to just that two days after he took office.

It has been more than two years and the prison is still open.

Now, President Obama has signed another executive order to keep 50 of the prisoners there without trial for an indefinite period of time. The same order initiates his own “military commissions” trials for the other detainees. This is creating a bill of attainder that is prohibited in the Constitution, or, just picking someone up and creating a law that allows the individual to be held.

Every administration since Clinton has said the “war on terror” is worldwide. The combatants are located in many countries around the world, including the United States. The battlefield, therefore, as defined by The Geneva Convention is not a tightly defined field but encompasses most of the globe. When people in this “war on terror” are captured the Geneva Convention Treaty has very detailed guidelines on how these prisoners of war should be treated. The United States signed the treaty. But, Obama, who promised to end this abuse of power, has now signaled that we will not follow the convention’s rules, but will only follow our own.

What is so troubling about this?

The United States expects every country in the world to follow these rules. If a United States citizen, civilian or military, are captured, the first thing we request is that they be treated fairly and by the rules. The executive order that Obama signed tosses the Geneva Convention rules out for the United States, just like previous administrations. The people that are being held in Guantanamo Bay are not classified as prisoners of war to avoid the convention’s rules and will not be classified as common criminals to avoid United States law. So, how is it we can expect others to follow the rules when we are not?

The answer is that as a culture, we often believe in American Exceptionalism. In its current use, it is the belief that we are better than other nations because of our belief systems, government, culture and history. The idea means that we can make our own rules at the same time that we expect others to follow different rules, rules of course, that we have agreed to but don’t follow.

Well, we are different. Our form of government is nearly perfect compared to most everything out there. Our belief in civil rights that are enumerated in the Constitution has made us a great country. If someone is arrested and charged with a crime, they have the right to due process. This means they can’t be held until we come up with something to charge them with. Or, if they are a prisoner of war, we have other rules that we agreed to follow.

But, our Exceptionalism shouldn’t provide us with an excuse to make our own rules, but rather that we follow them better than others. It is because we became great in our own right not because we were above everyone else, or in a phrase - above the law, but because we are a community of law.

Our Exceptionalism should compel us to follow the rules as an example, a shining beacon to the rest of the world. President Obama needs to resend his executive order and classify the detainees as prisoners of war or charge them with a crime where they can be tried in open court.

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