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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

November 11, 2003
   Vol. 1, No. 33

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

Visit "Pray with Us," a new feature on the Web site of the Erie Benedictines.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

Before we export it, let's get it back ourselves

By Joan Chittister,OSB

"The important thing," Einstein said once, "is not to stop questioning." I'm glad to hear that because I have a couple questions I want to ask that are not popular these days. At least they are, in the present climate, clearly not patriotic. And that's what troubles me most.

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The United States of America is a great nation that has been historically committed to a series of great causes. We crossed the continent in record time, for instance, and made one country out of the farthest flung territory in the Western world. We created the concept of the assembly line and out produced every similar-sized land in the world. We created the end of the world and stored it in the cornfields of the country, warning every nation on earth that we were prepared to destroy the planet, if necessary, to protect our independence.

And oh yes, lest we forget: we created the first democratically inspired nation in a world full of kings and kingdoms. Which brings me to our latest challenge.

Now, apparently, we have decided that all the nations of the Middle East -- all of them --need to become democracies like us.

Whether or not the goal is a laudable one is not my question.

My question is which kind of democracy do we want them to be: the kind we had before George Bush or the kind we have now? It's an important question because those two models of the democratic tradition are definitely not the same. The meaning of "Democracy," it seems, depends on who's defining it.

South Africa was a democracy and practiced apartheid.

The Phillippines is a democracy and has been subject to military coups at least three times in the last 15 years.

Italy is a democracy and has had 57 governments in 55 years.

Guatemala called itself a democracy and has killed over 100,000 of its own citizens and "disappeared" over 40,000 more since 1954.

Clearly, democracy is a movable feast. It all depends on who's running it. It's not so much the form as it is the spirit, the ideals, that count.

Before George W. Bush, American democracy had something to do with the right to privacy, equal protection under the law, and the civil liberties of freedom of speech and access to legal counsel.

But those constitutional guarantees are gone now.

Now you can be picked up and detained without cause, citizen or not.

Now your house can be searched without warrant. Secretly.

Now your phones can be tapped without proof of cause.

Now your bank records can be turned over to the government without your having been informed.

Now the government has the right to access any information about you without your knowledge, including the books you've checked out of the local public library.

Now you can be held without charge and without legal counsel for indefinite periods of time. Prisoners taken in Afghanistan and held in Guantanamo Bay have been there for over two years without access to lawyers or contact with their families, without protection from either the Geneva Conventions or the U.S. Constitution. In Russia it was called a "gulag."

Now secret search and surveillance have become operational strategies in the United States.

Worst of all, secret hearings and executive fiat make it almost impossible for either the legislative or judicial branch of a government based on checks and balances to do a thing to help you because, given the control of the Patriot Act by the White House, the principle of checks and balances is itself under attack.

The Patriot Act is not confined to "murderous foreigners bent on terrorism" -- as a radio talk show host called them. It's aimed at us. And even if it weren't, it is exactly the kind of creeping national criminalism that has marked the decline of every great nation in the history of the world.

And we learned this week, thanks to the newest of leaks in a leaky government, that the Justice Department under John Ashcroft is planning to strengthen this already un-American act.

But if that's the democracy we're promoting, what kind of democracy is it? How much does it really differ from what many people in the world -- in the Middle East -- are living under right now. Whatever anyone calls the form of it.

Loyalists rush to defend such an erosion of American democracy on the grounds that they are essential to the "security" of the United States. But if persons are not secure from the excesses of their own government, how secure are they? Really.

Most of all, after a government invades another nation in defiance of international support, conducts a national election in which it can't count its own votes, ignores the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of prisoners and violates the principles of due process, what is to stop any other nation from doing the same to its own people in the name of national security also? Or when they do, will we invade them, too?

And, Middle Eastern analysts are quick to point out, all of this from a president whose administration is giving financial support to the construction of an electrified wall around an entire country. It's hard to imagine that too much of the Middle East is going to be impressed by that as a model of democratic government. "Right message, wrong messenger," an Arab respondent called it.

Walter Lippman wrote once, "In a democracy, the opposition is not only tolerated as constitutional, but must be maintained because it is indispensable." It must be maintained.

Questions are not unpatriotic, they are of the essence of democracy. And so is debate. This country went to war on the slimmest of national debates in a congress of mutes in a country that calls itself a democracy. If we want to win the peace, preserve democracy and convince anyone anywhere that our kind of democracy is worth having, we're going to have to practice it ourselves this time.

From where I stand, the one good thing about being confronted with the possibility of Patriot Act II is that at least we won't be gagged in our consideration of these issues on the grounds that it is unpatriotic to question it as we were when they were imposed in "wartime." After all, didn't President Bush pronounce this war won?

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