It was a noble experiment; risky but worth the risk. Human beings have inalienable rights, Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. A declaration of human rights.
Of course, there were glaring omissions. Women did not have the same inalienable rights as men. African-Americans and Native Americans would have even less standing than women.
But the seeds were there that would eventually produce the fruit of an idea–all human beings have inalienable rights.
Some have had to work harder than others to enjoy their inalienable rights, and some are still waiting for the full fruit of the idea to remove the shackles of prejudice. But if we will continue to say the words, and to believe them at some level, there is hope for us all.
Unfortunately, on Sept. 11, 2001, we began to doubt the words. Obviously there have always been those in our midst who doubted the words, even despised them. The notion of equal rights for every person is just too much to expect. To dream of a society where people have equal access to the benefits of that society, and the protections of that society is simply too much to hope for–especially after horror and terror and death came to New York City.
But for some, after 9/11, it was time to revisit Jefferson’s words and rethink how they might apply in a new paradigm we call the war on terror.
In the new paradigm rights are entirely alienable. Rights can be suspended, ignored, trampled, removed, forgotten, abused, in other words ”tortured.
Because we must be safe, because we cannot bear the thought of another terrorist attack, we choose to abandon inalienable rights in order to treat alleged enemies as less than human. Human beings have rights, but less than human beings have only what we choose to give them in places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
This is not the America of Jefferson’s fully born declaration. This is an unknown America, gripped by a fear that tempts us away from the one thing that made us truly great.
Is it wrong for us to seek security within our homeland? Of course not. Is it wrong to seek justice for those who were murdered? Justice must be served. Is it wrong to want to track those down who attacked us and make sure they receive the due recompense of their acts? Track them down now.
But it is wrong to trample the Constitution in our efforts to seek justice.
If in our efforts to preserve our security and safety we abandon the core principles that brought us into existence in the first place, we will soon discover we have saved an America that has lost its soul.
And what about those other sources of soul in American life ”the great traditions of faith? By what stretch of the imagination does anyone believe that the God of Jesus Christ, the God of John 3:16, the God who regards the flight of the sparrow and says come unto me all you who are burdened, is a God who condones torture? Only willful ignorance or a complete absence of spirit allows for such utter theological nonsense.
Jesus said it first, and later Paul concurred: we overcome evil with good, not with more evil. And the good we seek that will overcome the evil we face is found in the words we used to believe. Inalienable rights.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.