For those of us born in the 40’s, it doesn’t seem all that long ago that we learned about death camps and the government mandated extermination of six million innocent Jews by the Nazis. We clearly remember the nuclear bombs dropped on two civilian population centers which forced Japan’s surrender. The Berlin Wall went up which signaled the beginning of a fifty year Cold War and the production of weapons of mass destruction by the world’s two superpowers at a rate that left every other nation powerless to compete – nuclear, biological and chemical.

It is uncomfortable today for these same older citizens to remember that African-Americans who fought and died in World War II did so in segregated battalions. Those who survived returned home to a nation where many couldn’t vote, attend most state universities, buy a home in most neighborhoods, or send their kids to most public schools. In many states, only certain areas on busses and trains and a few limited toilets and water coolers were available for their use. Not even the rich and famous were exempt. Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Sammy Davis Jr., could sell out stadiums and casinos, but could not sleep in the same hotel with their teammates, or in Sammy’s case, in any major Las Vegas hotel.

Guys like Orville Faubus, George Wallace and Bull Conner sanctioned the use of cattle prods, fire hoses and dogs on peaceful citizens who wanted nothing more than to register to vote. Pot smoking for white scions of privilege resulted in minor fines or reprimands – for young blacks, long term incarceration.

Women didn’t fare a lot better in the Sixties as there were few good jobs available and virtually no legal recourse for harassment and institutionalized barriers to equal access, irrespective of race. Women couldn’t have credit cards. Most major colleges and universities, including military academies, were men only.

Hate crimes hadn’t even been defined and the Ku Klux Klan marched openly as far north as Indiana and Ohio. It’s hard not to connect the assassinations of both John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King to intolerance and bigotry. An unnecessary, and in retrospect, unjust war in Viet Nam was in large part responsible for the overreaction at Kent State University, and the near Gestapo-like behavior of the Chicago police in response to the disruption of Richard J. Daley’s Democratic National Convention.

All of this should serve as a backdrop and as an important reminder of our current political leaders as they struggle with the aftermath of 9/11, the threat of ongoing global terrorism and the need to contain terrorists and despots like Bin Laden and Hussein and their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

Being the world’s undisputed “good guys” gives us the right to maintain thousands of long range nuclear missiles and to stockpile large amounts of chemical and biological weapons, as the world knows we would never use them. However, when our Senate Majority Leader states that we would have been better off if Strom Thurmond and his segregationist party had been elected president, our attorney general with White House support led an assault on affirmation action and our president declares our unilateral right to make war with little or no support from the U.N. and its Security Council, it’s not surprising that even some of our strongest allies are confused and concerned.

Very widespread human rights abuses are used as one justification for war with Iraq or North Korea. When our defense secretary openly derides “old Europe” for their determination to exhaust all diplomatic solutions before dropping bombs, and our Justice Department creates a questionable rationale for denying right of counsel to suspected terrorists and aliens, and imprisoning people as enemies of the state without due process, we should first take stock of our own moral high ground before judging others.

It’s always who calls the shots that ultimately determines for most people whether the end justify the means. After watching Charleton Heston’s “from my cold, dead hands” performance the day after the fatal shooting of a baby in Flint, Michigan, no set of circumstances could convince me to join the NRA.

Many feel Singapore is the conspicuous Asian economic and social miracle – the cleanest drug and crime free nation, with the highest literacy rate and standard of living – the result of thirty years of “enlightened dictatorship.” To take nothing away from “Mr. Lee,” how many Americans would be comfortable with state sanctioned whipping posts, the right of police to shoot people in possession of drugs on the spot, to impose, without appeal, thousand dollar fines for dropping a match, confiscation of books and magazines deemed prurient, haircuts for those whose fashion sense is at odds with the government’s? While the ends are admirable, the means in the hands of a less than “enlightened” dictator become very scary.

The undeniable need to protect our citizens from acts of terrorism does not justify altering the first amendment or suspending the Bill of Rights even for the bad guys. It’s taken 327 years to create the freest and most open society on earth with the greatest gains in personal freedoms for all Americans in the last fifty. It is right and proper to question the wisdom and consequences of a massive military strike on Iraq notwithstanding the recalcitrance of its brutal dictator. The fabric of our society presumes innocence and guarantees counsel for the accused. Free speech only works when everyone, including the bad guys, has equal opportunity.

The courts must decide if the government has properly identified and charged a bad guy. If we eliminate the checks and balances even in the face of known or suspected terrorists, we run the risk of joining our enemies by relying on the integrity of the individual who calls the shots, rather than the integrity of our system of justice.

No matter how well intentioned, detaining political prisoners without counsel and preemptive military strikes are at odds with the principles which define our democracy and which form the basis of our support around the world. Our president, his lieutenants and his supporters in Congress would be well advised to take all the time necessary to exhaust diplomatic solutions where no immediate threat exists to our security, and build the global consensus upon which our ongoing ability to lead the free world depends.