Deciding Who We Are

12/07/2015 08:15 am ET Updated Dec 07, 2016
WASHINGTON, USA - DECEMBER 3: The American flag flys at half-staff above the White House December 3, 2015 in Washington, DC.
WASHINGTON, USA - DECEMBER 3: The American flag flys at half-staff above the White House December 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. after U.S. President Barack Obama signed a proclaimation ordering all flags to be flown at half-staff to honor the victims of Wednesday's mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Over the past few weeks, I have become increasingly aware that we, as a nation, are at a decision point. It is a more fundamental question than just Planned Parenthood, gun violence, Muslims, Syria. However, one central question underlies them all.

Who are we as a nation? Who are we as a people? What are our values? Each of the current issues says something about us. And it's not good.

Fear is guiding our moral compass, and deciding what values are most important to us. As a result of these fears, we are valuing things which are objectively actively harmful to people, and U.S. national interests. The discussion over gun control, discrimination against LGBT people, and Syrian refugees are all examples of this. Previous examples of fear based values can be seen in US history, whether the Red Scare, the Japanese Internment, opposition to desegregation, or the Lavender Scare.

It is also worth noting that each of these is now regarded as a dark moment in our past.

Many of the things we ascribe great value to would be senseless anathema to an outside observer. When we look at other cultures with traditions that are actively harmful and have no real benefit, like female genital mutilation, we cluck our tongues, call them barbarians, and go about our lives certain of our moral superiority.

Consider, though, how our devotion to gun culture looks to outsiders. There primary effect of having made guns readily available is that most people who commit suicide do so with a gun, and 64 percent of gun deaths in 2012 were suicides. The number of gun related homicides in the U.S. is higher than any other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) country except for Mexico, where swathes of the country are controlled by competing, violent drug cartels. The supposed benefits of guns are not justified by statistics: guns did not prevent our current political oligarchy, and people are 143 times more likely to kill themselves with their gun than an intruder in an act of self-defense.

But we, as a culture, place the relative worthlessness of the ability to easily obtain guns over the value of people's lives.

Similarly, many among us are trying to embrace discrimination against LGBT people as a cherished and enshrined value. While most conservatives say that of course discrimination is wrong, and that no one should be discriminated against for being lesbian or gay, the right to discriminate is far more important than the actual people affected by the discrimination. Discrimination clearly has an adverse impact on a society, and the freedom to do so has no intrinsic benefit.

Behind it all is a Fox News-driven fear that Christianity is under assault, and that transgender people are a threat to life and liberty, women and children. People have been convinced that the ability to discriminate against LGBT people is central to the practice of their religion, and it is in danger of being taken away.

The fear-mongers hold up discrimination as fundamental a right. Some even cite discrimination as a matter of virtue and freedom of religion. There is a (false) ongoing narrative that the real discrimination going on in our culture is against Christians. They argue that people of faith need more legal protection against discrimination on the basis of religion. This has led to bills in the House of Representatives which would allow both religious organizations and for-profit companies to continue to take government money while discriminating against LGBT people.

Discrimination is such a fundamental right in our culture however, that it seems to somehow supersede what the constitution says about the government not discriminating on the basis of religion. The discussion about Syrian refugees has lain bare how little actual respect we have for religions other than Christianity.

Let's be clear; ISIS has created the worst humanitarian disaster of the 21st century. People are fleeing the repression, brutality, rape, and genocide perpetuated by the Islamic State, and returning is likely to be a death sentence. Even if they could go back without fear of ISIS, the refugees' cities lie in ruins and their infrastructure is devastated. However, we as a country have responded with our new, most cherished freedom: the right to discriminate.

Conservatives have made it clear this is about preventing Muslims from entering the United States. Senator and Presidential candidate Ted Cruz proposed only giving refugee status to Christian Syrians, because, "There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror." Two weeks later Robert Dear, a Christian, walked into a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs and shot 12 people, killing three.

New Jersey Governor (and also a candidate for President) Chris Christie abandoned any pretense that has anything to do with national security, though, when he stated, "I don't think orphans under... should be admitted into the United States at this point."

Opposition to taking in Syrian refugees might be understandable if the top experts on the subject were saying it was a bad idea. However, when non-partisan think tanks have looked at the issue, they have determined that the historical threat is low, it can be mitigated, and that taking in refugees is vital to the overall effort against ISIS. Even the libertarian, conservative-leaning Cato Institute regards the risks of Syrian refugees as low.

Sadly, the freedom to discriminate based on irrational biases and fears during a time of war are nothing new. It drove the decision to turn away 908 European Jewish refugees on board the M.S. St. Louis in 1938. We punished an entire class of people out of the unfounded fear that there MIGHT be some who sympathized with the enemy when we interned 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent living on the Pacific Coast in 1942.

Both are a national disgrace today.

The balancing act between freedom and a livable society is not an all or nothing proposition between complete chaos and authoritarianism. We accept some limitations over our rights to own and operate weapons already (e.g. fully-automatic weapons), but clearly these are insufficient to prevent the U.S. suffering from a rash of suicide and violence. We accept laws that circumscribe discrimination on the basis of race, religion, and other characteristics, but hold the freedom to discriminate for religious reasons as a sacred virtue, no matter what the consequences are.

Our problem now is that we are holding "freedoms" with no tangible benefit, and clearly defined harms, above all others. There is no logical, rational, or humanistic justification for them. Just fear and willful ignorance.

So who are we? More importantly, who will we choose to be as a nation? One governed by fear? One willing to accept unspeakable violence as the price of something with no real value? One willing to enshrine religious based discrimination as a lawful virtue? One where Muslims need not apply?

Or are we trying to become a society everyone would want to live in.