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We the people can bring back luster of 'shining city on the hill’
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We the people can bring back luster of 'shining city on the hill’

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The United States of America is both beautiful and unique, not so much for what it is, but for what it would be, for the aspirations and ideals which it represents to the citizens of the world. In spite of the wrong turns we make, we never quite give up on that struggle to manifest the best part of our nature. Our journey toward truly democratic goals often consists of three steps forward and two steps back, but we do seem to persist - and that persistence is what makes us "the shining city on the hill," not our wealth, our military might or our religion. The oppressed of this world will forgive us much, as long as they see us returning to that struggle towards the generosity and courage of a truly democratic spirit.

In recent times, our nation has lost its way and we have allowed our better selves to be overwhelmed by fear, anger and greed. We slipped into the trap of seeing ourselves as being qualified to control and manipulate the rest of the world, as being entitled to wealth and safety whatever the cost to others. In our hubris, we have done great harm. We find ourselves in military, economic and environmental crises with a dark cloud over our honor and credibility. Crises that we have essentially created for ourselves. Sept. 11, 2001, stung us, but our response to it has left much more devastating wounds to our nation and its spirit.

In order to resume our journey forward, and to deal effectively with the crises that confront us, it is necessary for us to recover our better selves - individually and collectively. We have to face the fact that the greatest power of democracy lies not in imposing our economic or military power on others, but in demonstrating true generosity, courage and maturity of spirit to the rest of the world. As individuals we have to accept the truth that to be worthy of democracy is to accept the risks inherent in being free. Putting security ahead of freedom is the first step towards fascism. The willingness to put freedom and fairness ahead of security is what defines a democracy.

Yes, we have to be willing and able to defend ourselves, as we did in World War II - but the ability to defend itself is only one aspect of being a great nation. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington would have seen most of the wars we've engaged in as the acts of a fearful, confused, insecure and immature democracy. They would have been ashamed of our ill-thought-out, angry and fearful response to Sept. 11, our willingness to discard our own civil rights and abuse the human rights of others. Can anyone imagine any of those gentlemen insisting on our right to torture and to discard inconvenient treaties?

Our founding fathers did not put security ahead of freedom. Most of them were prosperous, upper-class citizens who were willing to risk everything, including their fortunes and their necks, for freedom. That is what the rest of the world saw, and was inspired by. The Emancipation Proclamation, the Marshall Plan and the Peace Corps were all further evidence to the world of our courage and largeness of spirit. Our founding fathers would have been proud of those acts. They were the acts of a mature democracy.

I profoundly hope our next president has the courage and the wisdom to confront us with the reality of our moral, economic, environmental and international crises - and our own part in creating those crises. I hope he has the courage to straightforwardly challenge us to make the changes and sacrifices necessary to rectify those crises - and to restore some of the honor and luster to that "city on the hill." Better yet, I hope we, the people, insist on taking on that challenge.

Philip J. Burgess is a Vietnam veteran and poet. He lives in Missoula.

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