America the Lost

After last year's summer of discontent, I looked back on America's response to September 11:

A flood of post-September 11 articles asked how the attacks happened, what we would do next, and why terrorists hate us. One savvy pundit asked, Would America keep its head?

We invaded Iraq on trumped-up intelligence. We conducted illegal surveillance on our own citizens. We imprisoned people without charge, here and abroad. We rendered prisoners for torture and tortured others ourselves in violation of international law. All the while, millions of staunch, law-and-order conservatives supported and defended it, and still do. Vigorously.

Did America keep its head? Uh, no.

After an earlier national tragedy, the 1986 Challenger disaster, the broadcast networks filled air time by bringing on psychologists. How absurd it seemed to have TV psychologists telling us how we should feel about it and explain it to the kids. Today, of course, absurd is the new normal. Today we have the conservative Mighty Wurlitzer going all E. Power Biggs on America, telling us 24/7 not how we should feel but whom we should fear. And week by week it is becoming increasingly hard to keep up with whom the home of the brave is supposed to fear.

Which brings us to Barack Obama and Cordoba House, the proposed Islamic cultural center planned for lower Manhattan. In the face of a CNN poll showing that nearly 70 percent of Americans oppose construction of a "mosque" a couple of blocks from Ground Zero, Obama defended religious freedom in a speech last week:

As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.

Nearly seventy percent of Americans disagree, and that makes us a lot less exceptional than we think we are. It also cuts clean across the left-right divide. Since the election of Barack Obama and the onset of the Great Recession, the post-September 11 madness has simply intensified and spread.

So this fall, look for a new reality TV series where each week contestants (and the audience at home) choose new scapegoats and the country where they'll be deported. Contestants will be chosen from a melting pot of skin tones and ethnicities to prove to ourselves the game has nothing to do with fear and prejudice. Something like The Running Man with more Latinos.

In a pre-Cordoba House post at Campaign for America's Future, I likened the Tea Party to the newly "born again" -- their faith as unshakable as their insecurity -- only with copies of the U.S. Constitution substituting for the Bible. But with nearly 70 percent of Americans now willing to restrict the free exercise of religion over a mosque in lower Manhattan (and Murfreesboro, Tenn.; Temecula, Calif.; and Sheboygan, Wisconsin?), that critique now extends beyond the far right. How much, really, do we believe in American principles?:

Christian fundamentalists adamantly insist their faith in the unseen is unshakable. But how strong is it, really, when the faith of their fathers is so easily threatened by a fossil? And how strong, really, is the Tea Party's faith in American democracy if it is so easily threatened by losing an election?

The answers lie not in what principles people espouse -- even loudly -- in good times, but in what principles they refuse to cut and run from when tested.

And how did the far right flank perform post-September 11? Or in the wake of the 2006 and 2008 elections?

Innocent until proven guilty went out the window. Speedy trials? Out the window. The right to confront your accusers, freedom from unreasonable searches, habeas corpus, the Geneva Conventions, the rule of law, one-man-one-vote, majority rule? All went out the window...

For all the public piety, "Don't Tread On Me" banners, hands-over-hearts patriotism and conspicuous flag waving, the far right's faith in America's founding constitutional and democratic principles is a mile wide and an inch deep.

If CNN's 70 percent polling figure is accurate, the rest of us are just as lost and in need of some soul searching.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled immigrant bashing.