Is the US a nation of laws, of conscience, or of a new manifest destiny?

Some Americans will proudly and faithfully proclaim that the United States is a nation of laws, of conscience and also of a divinely granted manifest destiny. At times, in my politically pessimist days, I grow afraid that it may not be just some but most Americans that feel that way. It’s then when my faith in democracy is shaken a bit and I have to dig deep in search of greater strength.

The recent trial – now a mistrial – of Lt. Ehren Watada brings to the forefront the fact that laws and conscience often coexist in disharmony, that society must of necessity find a way not to subordinate individual conscience to those laws; especially when they do not make allowances for relevant change. While laws remain static, often after becoming inoperative, inappropriate or just plain obsolete, our conscience continuously evolves within us in search for answers by way of constantly newfound truths.

Lt. Watada was not a conscientious objector (CO), or he would not have volunteered. Nor does he now claim to be one. He simply objects to following orders which go against the dictates of his conscience; specifically, being part of an amoral, criminal war waged against a sovereign nation and people: Iraq. However this case is resolved, it should be emphasized that this young man is not a conscientious objector, but an objector of conscience. By so doing, he displayed an uncommon courage at par with the most valiant acts that can take place at any battlefront.

Recently, after almost three decades, I renewed an acquaintanceship with a Spanish professor I met while he held a chair of International Law in a major university in South America. Now he’s back in Spain, retired and, to my chagrin, profoundly apolitical. But it’s his old political flame that I’d like to refer to. It was our first conversation that left a major political imprint in me, one touching on the triad of law, conscience and manifest destiny. Our conversation centered on Chile’s then military dictator Pinochet, and what an incredible mentor Franco had been to Allende’s deposer – redemption of the dictator stigma, and protection by the US, had only required an advocacy of anti-communism.

In that first conversation, Jaume took me back to his childhood in Franco’s Spain during the 40’s and his formative education in a religious (Catholic) school; then the norm for a middle class which accounted for about one-fifth of the nation’s population. As mission statement for either the school or the system in which it operated, he vividly explained the visual display facing the students on the front wall of the study hall. Large signs hanged, he explained, in what appeared as a descending order of importance reading… “God, Country, Franco… Piousness, Study, Action… Always do well and always strive to do better.” That, Jaume told me was the mission, the rule of law, and the only frame of reference over which your conscience was expected to take shape during those pre-teen and early teen years.

As for the manifest destiny of those early days, Jaume humorously recalled how often the word empire became part of the lexicon; “Imperial Spain” being the term de rigueur thrown around during the weekly visits made by the Falange’s political indoctrinators. Here was a make-believe empire, one which had ceased to be centuries before, being resuscitated via inoculation of a “wishful resurgence” serum, to mentally transport a post civil war devastated country to those glory days which never existed for the population at large, only for the nobility, the Church and the military. According to Jaume, that was Fascist Spain’s own manifest destiny.

Are we, in the United States, being forced to become objectors of conscience to the laws of this nation as civilian counterparts to Lt. Watada? It’s evident that our elected politicians, most loyal to the two pro-war parties, refuse to bring America’s involvement in Iraq to a halt. Could it be that the problem is not one confronting law and conscience, but one that reaches much deeper than that? Have the neocons with their false but assertive patriotism convinced Americans that their manifest destiny lies beyond the continental aspirations of almost seventeen decades ago? Is there a new manifest destiny for an “Imperial America” to rule from pole to pole?

Fascism can keep its core ideology intact throughout the ages, yet show itself dressed in the appropriate costume of the epoch. Old Franco supporters and American neocons could be said to be distanced by half a century, yet read from the same liturgy-book: government-corporate centralized authority, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of opposition via fear and censorship, and above all a policy of belligerent nationalism and, yes, racism. Only difference between Franco’s and Bush’s fascisms is that Franco had no choice but to keep the belligerence within domestic confines… while Bush’s sphere of operations extends beyond domestic economic pillaging to an arrogant stance around the world that makes it appear as if no nation in the planet can feel secure, or have its rights validated by respect for international law.

Have we in the United States forsaken laws and conscience in exchange for a new call, a new manifest destiny that allows us to rule the world?