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Be the Best That We Can Be

by James McGinnis


America revealed her "best face" in the immediate response to terrorist violence. Rescue workers especially, but everyone who donated blood, who reached out to their Muslim neighbors with reassuring concern, who gave their compassion, time, and money to help the victims of 9/11 showed the world the best of America. HATE HIT AMERICA AND LOVE RESPONDED. Evil gave America its best shot and American goodness prevailed, at least for a moment. But evil wasnít finished with America. Evil wants us to become like it. The battle of good and evil isnít Americans vs. terrorists, for evil also invades our own souls and the policies and the very soul of our nation. To be the best that we can be demands that we take a very painful look at ourselves as a nation, to see how our economic and military power has so often been used to enrich ourselves by exploiting others.

While these terrorists arenít righteous champions of the poor and powerless, it is poverty, powerlessness and humiliation that breed terrorism. Letís be the best we can be and drain the swamps of poverty and exploitation that breed terrorism. The only truly effective strategy for dealing with terrorism can be glimpsed in an unlikely campaign in an unlikely place. In 1982, patriotic youth and adults throughout Nicaragua were organized to eliminate mosquito-borne malaria. On the same weekend, these patriots placed tiny bags of a powerful antidote in every pool and container of stagnant water in every corner of the country. Instead of trying to track down every single mosquito in the country with fly swatters and bug spray, Nicaraguans went after the breeding grounds for these insects. And the patriots won. Malaria all but disappeared as long as this strategy remained in place. We can learn from this campaign and recover the idealism that has made America great at different times in our history.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy challenged American idealism in words no one of that generation will ever forget. "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Shortly after this ringing challenge, thousands of American patriots volunteered for the Peace Corps, to take the best of America to the poor and exploited peoples of this world. Today we need an even broader rallying cry, challenging Americans to "ask not what the world can do for us (providing cheaper products and greater corporate profits), but what we can do for the world." Instead of marshalling only the military forces of America to bomb terrorists and those who harbor them, we should be marshalling the police and intelligence forces of the world to bring the terrorists to justice. We must at the same time marshall our best moral force to say to the poor of the world who have been exploited by American wealth and power Ė we are sorry for this misuse of our power and wealth. We will mobilize our financial and human resources in another "Marshall Plan" for you, as we did for Europe after World War II. We will cancel your burdensome debts and provide development aid on a massive scale, not the paltry 0.1% of our GNP that we do now.

This is a KAIROS moment. As those wonderful patriotic youth of the 60ís and 70ís who made up the "Up With People" troupe sang to audiences throughout America Ė "Which way, America; which way, America, are you going to go?" The choices we are making in these perilous times will help or hurt the world for decades to come. Letís invest in the future of a world that is both safe and free. We can never again be safe and free unless the whole world is safe and free. And we canít do that alone. We have to work as one nation among many through the international auspices of the United Nations, using the International Criminal Court rather than our own military tribunals, to try the terrorists.. And let us bring to these international institutions and to the peoples of the world the best that we can be. Thatís the kind of patriotism the world needs and America needs. We canít let our government continue to squander what safety and freedom we have in a misguided adventure of brute military force.

Iím deeply saddened, scared, and angry that neither Americans nor those in the rest of the world will ever be safe and free again unless we find the courage, humility and compassion to turn our beloved America around. The rescue workers on 9/11 showed us how. Now itís up to the rest of us.


For Reflection:

  • Have students identify what they agree and disagree with and why

  • Have them identify what they think are the values and policies that represent the "best" of America

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