12/22/2014 10:45 am ET Updated Feb 21, 2015

Real Americans

One of NFL Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcell's more oft-used quotes is: "You are what your record says you are." That doesn't just apply to sports teams. Team America's record of late has not been of the champion of the values we say define who we are and what we're about. Our record says more about our real identity more than the one we imagine.

We say we are not a nation of torturers. But regardless of how technically correct or incorrect the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA's detention and interrogation activities is, it's been an open secret for many years that a government that represented us did some cruel and unusual things to people -- all in the name of "national security" -- as has been the NSA's wholesale surveillance and collection activities on its own citizens, with possible but not probable cause.

So it appears, at least, we have placed a higher premium on security than on human rights and freedom.

Too many of us obfuscate such darker behaviors -- especially when we ourselves do it -- with legalistic technicalities, as if trying to review whether a play was in or out of bounds instead of reviewing why it was called in the first place. Then we cover it with gobbledygook terms like "enhanced interrogation techniques."

But as Jim Wright argues in Grab Bag, regardless of motive or cause, when you commit an act of torture, you are a torturer. That's not just grounded in the law of our land; it's the law of nations -- including, other than the Geneva Conventions, the UN Convention on Torture Ronald Reagan signed in 1984. "Once the enemy becomes a prisoner and no longer has a means to resist," Wright explains what every soldier knows, "we become solely responsible for his or her life, well being, and treatment."

More importantly, if the majority of the people -- by a 2:1 margin according to a recent poll -- supports their government's use of torture, even under the most extenuating of circumstances, then we are indeed a nation of torturers. As Wright bluntly puts it: "Good intentions do not justify evil... You cannot lay claim to the moral high ground if you engage in the same brutality as your enemies."

It doesn't end there.

When your record says you place people of color in permanent socioeconomic inequality, when your police forces and courts supposedly reflecting a system of "equal justice under the law" habitually suspect, search, detain, and incarcerate them at rates beyond the reasonable doubt of statistical anomaly, when your record of social inequality along lines of color begins to draw comparison to South African apartheid, and when the record shows that your country's first Chief Executive of color has incidentally been the most contested of presidents in memory (if you count up all the filibusters alone), despite a considerable record of achievements in the face of such opposition -- then you live in a nation that, at best, tolerates racism.

And then there's economic inequality. The United States ranks seventh in the world in wealth disparity, with the top 10 percent controlling 74.6 percent of the country's net worth, according to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report -- way above any other developed or advancing country. The "land of opportunity" is among the industrial world's worst publicly educated, the most violent, and has among the fastest falling infrastructures in the developed world. By a number of measures, the U.S. is the largest, richest, and most powerful country in the Third World.

Much of this is because the greatest experiment in self-governance is not a paragon of democracy, but of dysfunction borne out in a legislature that hasn't passed a major bill of any kind since the decade began. Instead, it is mired in monied politics hallmarked by the kind of concentrated robber baron power that Teddy Roosevelt warned (over a century before Elizabeth Warren) threatens "the very foundations of our democratic system."

Even the no-brainers now make your head hurt. A nation whose greatest strength is its diversity embodied in a national ethos of e pluribus unum, making it the greatest engine of innovation in history -- a critical comparative advantage in societal software that no other power including China can pirate or hack into -- cannot find the consensus to update its archaic immigration laws due to a wave of fear and jingoism, fanned by both politicians and a media that once set the world standard in journalism. All this despite the other obvious advantages immigration reform brings to deficit reduction, tax revenues, economic growth, and social stability.

Good thing the Native Peoples Council (who represent another group of people we've treated rather shoddily) has offered amnesty to 220 million undocumented European-Americans.

Add to that persistent Islamophobia, Ebolaphobia, the near-hysteria caused by anything that has to do with the non-existential threat of terrorism, or even Sony's decision to cower to cyberbullies, and it has become abundantly clear how manipulated we have become by this most basic emotional stimulus: We live, as Foreign Policy editor David Rothkopf terms it, in a nation of fear. And America cannot long remain the land of the free if it is no longer the home of the brave.

If there's one thing that we should have learned from 9/11, it's that in this interconnected, multipolar world we are now in, over there matters over there - we have to pay more attention the larger world around us. While America may still not be interested in the world, the world is still interested in America -- which is why we can't look at the many issues that capture our attention as merely domestic.

"The grim reality," Center for Strategic and International Studies Burke Chair in Strategy Anthony Cordesman tells us, is that these issues and more importantly our expressed attitudes toward them "have an immense strategic cost beyond our borders, discredit America's influence and values, and aid terrorists, extremists, and authoritarians throughout the world."

"We have every possible domestic reason to come to grips with these issues in shaping our own society, to give real meaning to the principles we say we believe in," Cordesman continues. "We also, however, need to start thinking about torture, racism, and bigotry in strategic terms. We need to understand as a nation that it is not enough to have the world's most effective military forces. Like it or not, our position in the world will be as dependent for the foreseeable future on addressing the faults in our own society and actions as on calling for others to change."

As Wright succinctly states: "If the United States of America insists on calling itself exceptional, then it must be the exception."

We can no longer afford our ignorance-based politics, let alone the systemic hypocrisy it permits. The issues that widen the gap between how we see ourselves (or would like to) and how the world sees us, rightly or wrongly, are essentially moral, and as Wright points out, "morality is a choice for people, not governments" -- and if you want responsible government, you have to provide responsible citizenship.

Only a great people can make a great country. As I write in my upcoming book, Travels with Harley - a Journey through America in Search of Personal and National Identity:

As an American soldier deployed in the face of far more morally complex situations than those of past generations (and less than those that will follow), I often contemplated the small patch on my right shoulder (with the blue field on the right, facing forward into battle), and the special privileges and burdens placed on those who wear it. Indeed, we are not on a level playing field, held to a higher moral and ethical standard for the encouragement of friends, the discouragement of foes, and the deliberation of the nonaligned. It is perhaps unfair -- we are no better, no more or less human than any of the others. But we and no one else put ourselves here, so we are called to that higher comportment.

As the citizenry that soldier belongs to, we also either take up this calling or accept a lesser moral standard for ourselves. If we leave our fate for others to decide, we do not having the right to send these young men and women into harm's way on our behalf, wearing that flag, to represent what we believe is good for others but cannot live up to ourselves.

We are either all real Americans, or none at all.