“American Exceptionalism” or Two Speed Justice

January 20th, 2012

Over the last couple of weeks, outrage has erupted over a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act (http://www.opencongress.org/bill/112-h1540/show). This provision will enable the President to allow for the indefinite detention and torture of Americans suspected of terrorist activity.

It violates the fundamental right of Habeas corpus and will preclude American citizens from having a fair trial. Evidently, this bill encroaches upon the values that we hold as inalienable rights and that make up the grandeur of our country.

Unfortunately, these practices sound far too familiar. Our government already resorts to such procedures. The National Defense Authorization Act will, in fact, extend the undemocratic measures practiced between the walls of Guantanamo Bay to American citizens.

There is a clear double standard in our conception of justice. Whereas we consider it unfortunate that alleged criminals born beyond our borders are not given the benefit of the doubt, a defense, or the basic respect for human dignity- it is inconceivable for our own citizens to be subjected to such a horrific treatment. So why are we more comfortable with the assault of non-US citizens? Is this sentiment motivated by what is commonly dismissed as self-interest? Or does it stem from a belief in American exceptionalism? The indignation of Americans, on all sides of the political spectrum, faced with the idea of being potentially directly implicated in this existing ritual, is revealing of the American belief that American citizenship is a de facto qualification for the reception of fundamental rights. Americans seem to feel entitled to democracy.

We argue that we have been passed down a quasi-sacred set of rules by our founding fathers, and, by association, are guaranteed a certain amount of rights.

But what makes America, and what makes its laws so “exceptional”? Constitutional rights seem to have little strength, and even further, little legitimacy, if we do not consider them to be universally applicable. A human right can’t be exclusive to a specific people. The Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal” loses all meaning if it solely serves to justify the equality of citizens amongst one nation. In this sense, our democracy can’t be viewed as legitimate unless we adopt an outward-looking conception of justice. Our sense of entitlement is crippling democracy, and our belief in American exceptionalism is undermining our foundations entirely.

Our sense of entitlement further stresses the importance of rights at the detriment of that of our duties. We expect much from government and do very little to make it representative. Voter turnout in the United States is embarrassingly low. For example, in 2008, the United States was proud to point to a pale voter turnout of 63%, viewing the engagement of a small majority of its population as an accomplishment.

Our sense of entitlement blinds us from our obligation to the rest of the world. It is also robbing us of our participatory role of citizens, leading to the dismemberment of the democracy we claim so dearly. To live in a truly democratic country, and to help build a world that we can proudly refer to as “just”, we must remember that we are not entitled to democracy. Democracy embodies universal principles that must be applied to all. Democracy is hard work, but as Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

Sasha Beder-Schenker

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