Even a child is known by his actions, by whether his conduct is pure and right.
When I was a boy, we were the good guys. Americans drove those colonialist British off our shores, defeated slavery in the Civil War, avenged the Maine, fought on the side of the Allies in World War I and put an end to Hitler's genocidal reign. We were the Arsenal of Democracy and after the War we picked up our defeated enemies, dusted them off and said, "Okay, the bad guys are gone, now it's over." Remember the Marshall Plan? We were a generous nation who supported a whole lot of the world. American experts and aid ranged out across the globe trying to uplift those poor Third World countries and bring them into the 20th century. During the Cold War we were the bulwark that stood up against limitless Soviet expansion. Before that we stayed out of entangling alliances and most power politics, entering only when attacked. We wore the white hats.
As I grew older and began to study, I saw things differently. We also overthrew a few democratic governments (Chile, Guatemala, Iran) because our business interests wanted it that way. The truth is that Americans are far more committed to free market capitalism than democracy. We stayed out of most European Wars but our Native American citizens would certainly not agree that America was a peaceful nation that always kept its word. Manifest Destiny was also a code word for internal imperialism, a parallel Russians clearly understand. We've done some bad things. Think of all the right-wing dictators we've supported in Africa, Asia and Central America. Truth is that if you weren't communist, you were allowed to be utterly brutal, so long as it didn't make the CBS Evening News. Anastasio Somoza fell short of that, and when he was overthrown by the Sandinistas (leftists). The Reagan Administration lied to Congress and sent arms to Iran to arm the Contras against them. If Venezuela's Hugo Chavez's anti-American rhetoric is way over the top, we should remember it comes after the Bush Administration backed a failed coup attempt against him.
One of the differences between left and right is where you put the emphasis. Conservatives seem to see only the good, pointing to Hitler and the Cold War while readily ignoring the excesses that went along with it. That's a message reinforced by our educational system and our beer commercials, where everyone is told we're great. It feels good too, and for years Americans have mostly lived up to it. We did help beat Hitler (even if the Russians fought longer while both taking and inflicting far more casualties, and liberated the majority of the death camps). The Marshall Plan helped rebuild a shattered world. America was both good and generous, and I'm proud of that heritage.
But if a nation claims to be both great and generous then it is not unreasonable to expect its actions to follow after its rhetoric. It's easy to claim you don't torture people when life is going well. But it doesn't really mean anything, because you pay no real price for it. Remember the Biblical story of the widow who dropped her last penny in the pot giving more than the rich who dropped in gold and silver. She actually sacrificed to keep her tithe. The rich gave up nothing they needed. They sacrificed nothing.
Today torture has returned under the leadership of George W. Bush. Of course he won't admit that, and what we won't officially do, we contract out to people who will. The reason, of course, is the War on Terror. The attacks on September 11, 2001 killed thousands and the government has a perfectly legitimate interest in trying to prevent a recurrence. People ask the question, If it would save lives, wouldn't it be okay to torture? How about to prevent a nuclear attack. The question is not an easy one, particularly in the face of an enemy like al Quaeda which lacks any degree of scruple. But it does matter. We're either a nation that condones and commits torture, or we're not. We don't get to finesse the question. If our standards mean something to us, they're a standard we hold to under duress. If we abandon our principles at the first challenge, then we have no right to claim them in the first place.
I think there's value in a country that forswears torture in the face of a threat. I think it's important to be generous even when money is tight. Because those are the moments when you really show what you're made of. We know people who keep going when the going gets rough. They're the people we admire, the ones we remember as great. If we want to call America a great country, that title deserves to stand on more than conspicuous consumption. We need to act like a great country, even when it's hard and when we're scared.
If we do that, then we can feel that we really are part of something great. If we can't, we're just another rich country.