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Erica Payne Headshot

How to Kill America

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Last week, elected leaders and political figures came together in a portrait of unprecedented unity to stop International Burn the Koran Day. The security of our nation is at risk, they warned ominously. Unfortunately, in what was indeed our nation's hour of need, no one in the veritable Benetton ad of the political spectrum actually understood what it was we needed saving from.

Would terrorists have used the Koran burning to sign up new recruits? Most likely, yes-- Would the Koran burning lead to violence? Probably. But . . . so what?

Koran-burning and mosque (ahem, community center) protests may provide fodder for recruiting and violence, but so do any number of other things we do on a daily basis and we are unlikely to rethink our foreign policy paradigm as a result. Nor should we. Like it or not, we will be living with terrorism for the foreseeable future. It will ebb and flow on any number of factors, the behavior of our wack-nuts least among them. The Defense Department, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and a whole slew of other departments will deal with it. That's their job.

In the meantime, we citizens need to deal with the biggest threat to America. And contrary to popular opinion, the greatest threat to America is not what a terrorist is going to do to us, but rather what we are going to do to ourselves (either because of what they did to us in the past or what we think they might do to us in the future). In short, terrorists aren't the biggest threat to America, we are.

Consider this: We are the world's only superpower. We have 309 million citizens and control 3.79 million square miles of land. At $14.3 trillion, we have the world's largest economy. We make up two-fifths of the world's military spending. It is virtually impossible for our enemies to beat us physically. Even if by some unimaginable turn of events terrorists were able to destroy every building in the country, the citizens who remained would just move to West Texas, stick a flag in the sand while singing God Bless America at the top of their lungs and start to rebuild. We're just like that, we Americans.

So since you can't destroy the land that is America; in order to destroy us, you must kill the idea that is America - the principles that brought us together in the first place and that bind us now, even when we fall short of realizing them. Our worst enemies don't want our body. They want our soul. Like the devil, the only way they can get it is if we give it to them. Unfortunately, politicians are racing to sign the dotted line.

Over the last six weeks, politicians of both parties have abused our most cherished ideals, first by publicly bullying Muslims for wanting to pray in an 'insensitive' location and then by attacking a preacher for burning a book he finds offensive. On the surface, our reaction to these acts seems reasonable. Why not move a few blocks North? Why not shut down the rants of a single preacher? Is preventing the 'free exercise' of religion and speech to a small number of Muslims and one crazy man really that consequential? Of course not. However, our collective willingness to betray our founding principles because someone's feelings might get hurt or because people across the ocean may not like it is profoundly consequential. Even in our darkest days - days of injustice and hypocrisy- our founding principles have provided the architecture for our endurance. They are today, as they were at our founding, who we are.

When we speak of security it is essential that we understand what it is we seek to secure. If it is our values that bind us, then it is our values that we must protect above all else. Is an America where Muslims are bullied and their houses of worship banished really America? Is an America where the Secretary of Defense calls a private citizen to stop him from burning a book on private property still the land of the free?

Our nation can be 'indivisible' only if we remain committed to the idea that our differences - whatever they may be - are less important than our shared ideals. By forfeiting these principles - and so easily - we accomplish what no terrorist ever could.