Harold Estes’ Letter, or Speaking Angry to Power

16 01 2013

Yesterday, over on Facebook, someone I know shared an image relating to a open letter to President Obama written by Harold Estes, a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The image read “Barack and Michelle Obama get Owned by a 95 Year Old Pearl Harbor Survivor.” The person I know added the following:

“Just as a side note, Harold Estes passed away in May 2011 at the age of 96. I’m sure there are some who would not agree with this man, but hasn’t anyone else noticed the unlikable changes around here????”

To her and to (the late) Harold Estes, I respond:

I mean no disrespect by saying this, but I take issue with Mr. Estes’ points. If he were alive and I could speak to him, I would ask him about the points I make below. Similarly, I ask you to enumerate the “unlikable changes” that have taken place since President Obama took office. How has your life changed? I hear a lot of talk about religious persecution and curtailed liberties, but I’ve seen absolutely no evidence of any such thing, beyond policies that have been continued from the previous administration (warrantless wiretapping of Americans, indefinite detention without due process, extralegal assassinations via drone strikes, etc.). I’m open to the possibility that things have actually changed for the worse, but I fail to see how and would like an explanation.

To Mr. Estes’ points, I say:

The United States of America is not now, nor has it ever been a “Christian Nation.” Several of our founding fathers spoke very explicitly and directly to that. See Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists (http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9806/danpre.html), the origin of the phrase “wall of separation between Church & State.” The Treaty of Tripoli, written under John Adams and ratified by a supermajority in the Senate, features the following (Article 11): “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion, – as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims], – and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” Again, that was written by a President, who was also one of the founding fathers, and ratified by two thirds of the Senate. In 1790, George Washington said “Allowing rights and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it were by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support,” in a letter to the first synagogue established in the United States. James Madison said “Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Govt in the Constitution of the United States,” and “practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government is essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.” While Christians are clearly the majority, to argue that that makes the nation inherently “Christian” demeans the millions of non-Christian Americans, myself and my family included. Many soften this blow by amending the assertion, calling the US a “Judeo-Christian” nation, but this fails to encompass the large population of non-Christians and non-Jews who are just as American as you or me. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Muslims, and people of countless other faiths have contributed to our strength and prosperity as a nation. This country is theirs every bit as much as it is yours or mine.

Estes also takes issue with the notion that America has been arrogant, but that is fairly indisputable fact. We need look no farther than the invasion of Iraq for proof. In the run-up to that war, Americans and the world at large were repeatedly told by our government that we would be “greeted as liberators,” and that the war would be easy, fast, and cheap. Obviously, these predictions were completely incorrect. Is it not arrogance to believe that one’s ideas and military might are so amazing that they will instantly quell generations of sectarian bitterness and conflict just by showing up? I believe very strongly that the values and the ideals of the American project are glorious and provide an example for the world to follow, but I’m not so naive as to think merely being informed of those values and ideals will lead anyone and everyone to immediately come around to our way of thinking. It’s a big world, with a lot of other opinions and ways of doing things. I may believe that it would be a better place if more countries followed our example, but it is certainly arrogant to think that just because we show up, societies – including many that have existed far longer than the United States has – will change overnight. We can and should lead by example, and we should support those who wish to emulate us, but to think that we can institute our beliefs by force is foolish and can only lead to the kind of resistance and violence we have seen so vividly in Iraq. That America has, as President Obama has said, “shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive” is simply a fact, and what good does it do us to behave as though we are incapable of error? Is it not arrogance to believe that you can do no wrong?

While discussing the nation’s wrongs, it is worthwhile to remember that the First Lady can trace her lineage directly to slaves on both sides of her family. Her ancestors did not come here seeking freedom, as so many have. They were dragged here against their will to experience the exact opposite of freedom. There was nothing they could do to earn freedom, and they knew, despite their fondest hopes, that their children and children’s children could not expect anything better than servitude and bondage. Ancestors only two or three generations separated from her watched this country tear itself apart over the question of whether they deserved their freedom, and to this day, many of her countrymen proudly brandish the war colors of those who believed that such freedom was not owed to all men. To this day, many of her countrymen loudly resent the fact that their ancestors were dragged, against their will, to the standard set forth by that defining and self-evident truth that all men are created equal. Similarly, the official policies of the United States lead to the genocidal relocation of Native Americans, who found themselves in the crosshairs of the government for the dastardly crime of having been here first. Is it not arrogance to proclaim that we carry the banner of freedom and equality when our own history is marked with such egregious denials of those ideals to people within our own borders?

Estes believes that the President and First Lady’s remarks are indicative of a lack of gratitude. I don’t understand how the decision by a well respected Harvard Law graduate to eschew lucrative private practice in favor of community organizing, education, and public service demonstrates a lack of gratitude. On the contrary, the President seems very aware of the unique opportunities this nation has afforded him and has dedicated his life to ensuring that all Americans have access to similar opportunities. How is working to guarantee that all Americans have access to affordable health care ungrateful? How is trying to provide access to post-secondary education for all who desire it evidence of ingratitude? How is successfully hunting down and eliminating the mastermind of the worst attack on U.S. soil evidence of ingratitude? What was President Bush’s complete failure to do so evidence of?

Estes exhorts the President to heed the advice of his military advisors to “finish the mission,” presumably in Afghanistan. The Soviets spent nine years, thousands of their own troops (and hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians), and enormous amounts of money to finish the mission there, only to leave the mission unfinished and hasten the demise of their own nation as military expenditures outstripped their ability to pay for them. We’ve been there even longer, and it’s difficult to see what we’ve gained. A new government is in place, but the Taliban still wields considerable power. President Obama ordered a large troop increase, but its effect has been negligible. Put simply, Afghanistan is a mess, and there’s little we can do to change that. The government we installed is riddled with corruption. Its security forces are ill-equipped to provide for the safety of the Afghan people. If we stay, we’re essentially making Afghanistan a wildly expensive 51st state, a state that will not be stable for a very long time, at a time when our own budget is the topic of great debate. Iraq was a similar situation – it had become a hole into which we were pouring lives and money, with no end in sight. I would dearly love to see a stable and free Afghanistan emerge from the current disaster, but nothing short of a massive commitment of troops and money, far greater than any of our efforts to date, for many years to come, will achieve that end, and it will require constant maintenance for a very long time. I don’t think we can afford that.

Estes mentions the shooting at Ft. Hood and demands that we take note of the fact that Nidal Hassan is a Muslim. He certainly is a Muslim. Should we similarly note that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols are Christians? And Eric Rudolph, who bombed Centennial Olympic Park, two abortion clinics and a lesbian bar because they violated his religious beliefs? Does his Christianity mean that we should view all Christians as terrorists? What about the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan? They were and are self-identified Christians who used terror to impose their beliefs on those they felt to be in violation of their sense of right and wrong. The use of violence and terror to influence the behavior and beliefs of others is the dictionary definition of terrorism. Once again, do McVeigh, Nichols, Rudolph, and others like them represent all of Christianity? If not, how do the actions of Hassan and other fundamentalist Muslims represent the entirety of that faith?

As I said at the outset, I don’t mean any disrespect to you by saying any of this, and I mean no disrespect to Mr. Estes, either. He deserves our respect and appreciation for his service and sacrifice for our freedom and safety. That said, his points of contention with the President are not supported by reality, and I can’t find any evidence of the perilous erosions of our freedom and terrible changes to our way of life that I often see the President blamed for. If you can point me to examples of these erosions and changes, please do so. If I am mistaken, I want to know. We can only grow as people when we allow our beliefs to be challenged and either affirmed by evidence or cast aside as incorrect, and we should always seek out opposing beliefs as a chance to put our own to that all-important test.

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