09/21/2010 02:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

When American Exceptionalism Should Be Absolute

American exceptionalism is something that I was taught -- whether directly or indirectly -- growing up. Despite our great country's young age, I was told that it was better in nearly every way than other countries on Earth. All grown up now I have come to the sad realization that this is not true -- America does not have a monopoly on economic power or military power, and is certainly not seen as the prevailing power of good that many people of this country would like to believe that it is.

But if there is one arena in which American exceptionalism ought to be absolute and unwavering, it is in the treatment of civilians. Our treatment of this special class of people is spotty, to say the least. Our history of slavery and internment of civilians is nothing to aspire to, but it is also, unfortunately, not outside of the historical norm of other industrialized nations.

Which is why the recent news out of Afghanistan of a "kill team" of American soldiers who killed Afghan civilians for sport is so disturbing. According to the Washington Post five members of the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division are charged with allegedly murdering three Afghan civilians over a number of months beginning in the middle of January. In addition to the killings, some of the soldiers are alleged to have dismembered the bodies of Afghans and kept items like skulls and finger bones.

To make matters worse, the father of Christopher Winfield from Cape Coral, Florida, one of the soldiers charged, says that he warned the Army of the group's intentions. He claims that his son had sent him messages on Facebook fearful of his comrades' intentions in harming Afghan civilians. After getting the runaround from the Army and Congressional bureaucracy, the soldier's father was eventually told that there was little Army brass could do without his son speaking to his superiors in Afghanistan. Two Afghan civilians were murdered after this warning.

If true, these charges are incredibly injurious not only to America's name, but also to the mission we are trying to fulfill in Afghanistan. The alleged ringleader of the killings, Staff Sgt. Calvin R. Gibbs, 25, of Billings, Montana, bragged to his co-defendants that he was able to get away with a lot of stuff in Iraq during his tour there in 2004. Gibbs' alleged words reminded me of the case of Sgt. Paul E. Cortez, who was sentenced to 100 years for the gang rape and murder of a 14 year-old Iraqi girl and the killing of her family.

There is no doubt that war brings about numerous unintended and unwanted consequences, but the premeditated murder of civilians while representing the United States Army is beyond inexcusable and tarnishes every American's name. Whether for or against America's current wars, anyone can recognize the inherent wrong in the actions described above.

The reality of the situation is that the overwhelming majority of our troops overseas do not engage in this type of despicable behavior. The Army, however, did its charges no favors by refusing to take Mr. Winfield's warnings seriously. We have men and women fighting overseas for this country under the Army, the least the organization could do is ensure the safety of all of its servicemen and women by routing out the rotten apples who put this country's heroes in harm's way through their actions.

As an American I am deeply disappointed with the allegations against these servicemen. I also have the ability to recognize that the majority of our friends and family serving overseas are above this behavior. Unfortunately, many of the extremists we are fighting against both in the Middle East and worldwide are more narrow minded than this and may take these five soldiers' actions as representative of our armed forces. We are in Afghanistan because of cowardly, unprovoked attacks on American civilians. To hear that Army soldiers may have been involved the same type of murder is disheartening.

The treatment of civilians is a realm in which this country should -- and for the most part does -- strive to be leaps and bounds above our peers. The freedoms we afford our citizens are the benchmark to which other nations aspire. But this does not mean that we can rest and take them for granted. We must continue to defend these freedoms and quickly recognize wrongdoing by those representing this country and vigorously denounce them. This is the American exceptionalism I believe in.