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Fighting for our souls and our ideals

As Duke welcomes a new freshman class and new academic year, the first anniversary of a very black day looms ahead. It is easy to say that America's current war is for our survival and prosperity, but we are fighting for our ideals as much as we are for our physical well-being, so this war is not solely about bin Laden and al-Qaeda, but about whether the idea that succored them, radical Islamic fundamentalism, will destroy or be destroyed by American ideals. As an immigrant, I deeply appreciate the guiding principles of America that are often taken for granted:

1) Empiricism: Americans are not wedded to ideologies and are wary of new "-isms," but fond of things that work, focusing on goals, not processes. Skepticism and pragmatism fuel scientific inquiry (the beginning of any quest for truth are the words "I don't know") and enable correction of mistakes by government and society. The Constitution's preamble, "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union," embodies this, recognizing that America, land of second chances, is and always will be a work in progress.

2) Anyone can be an American: The Statue of Liberty proclaims welcome to foreigners (although such welcome is not always matched in reality). In stark contrast to countries that severely restrict immigration, allowing foreigners only as menial laborers and indentured servants, or have citizenship requirements that one's ancestors were citizens, the U.S. confers opportunities to newcomers and their children--a marvelous engine of self-renewal. I will never forget my Chinese medical school classmate whose parents sold noodles on the streets of Flushing, N.Y. Fostering enlightened immigration not only enriches the cultural vibrancy of America but is a brilliant economic device. The country gets the talents and tax base of numerous adults without investing in their childhood. The most handsome dividends of immigration were in World War II, when we welcomed countless refuges and hundreds of scientists fleeing Nazi death camps who then went on to help us win.

3) Live and let live: This underpins our freedom of choice and culture of the individual. While the First Amendment gets all the glory, the Tenth Amendment shines, "Powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." You can pretty much do anything you like as long as you don't hurt others, and the government won't get in the way.

4) The rule of law: John Adams wrote, "We are a nation of laws, not of men." The checks and balances in the architecture of the Constitution, together with due process enshrined in the Bill of Rights, have shielded the world's oldest democracy from the temptations of tyranny, moderated mob passions, and protected freedoms and the innocent. Transparency is maintained by a vigorous judiciary and a free press, the organs of society that cast sunlight on government agencies and guard against abuse. The Freedom of Information Act reinforces the "public's right to know."

5) Exploration: Hollywood's special effects do not compare with NASA, deep-sea divers, particle physicists, biomedical researchers and their predecessors. This culture of exploration has bestowed America with unparalleled dynamism, a fascination with the future, an eternal optimistic can-do spirit and unprecedented physical and social mobility.

6) Opportunity for all: In principle, everyone has access to health, education, capital and self-improvement, the goal being equal opportunity for the pursuit of happiness. Our system is intended to discriminate among persons based on their character and deeds, not on features of identity they were born with, principles codified in the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and restated in the Civil Rights Act. These allow each citizen to dream the American Dream, the continual betterment of the material well-being of the individual and the country, a dream that has nourished entrepreneurship and progress.

7) Separation of church and state: The First Amendment begins, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." This sentence has protected religion from the corruption of politics and government from the tyranny of fundamentalism. Both are vital, since faith stems from divine revelation and should not be polluted by mundane concerns, and democracy requires the ability to dissent and to say "I don't know," with which a theocracy is incompatible (witness the Taliban). Separation of institutions also underlies the separation of powers and apolitical military that are key features of our government.

These principles have helped this country become great. Sure, they have drawbacks (gridlock, bureaucracy, materialism), and yes, America has too often been hypocritical (the three-fifths compromise, lack of women's suffrage, slavery, wiping out Native Americans), but within our system is the capacity to recognize faults, change and grow, to form a more perfect union.

We can no longer hold the illusion, nourished by two oceans and two friendly neighbors, of isolation from the world. Foreign policy must be informed by an appreciation of who we are so as to articulate and pursue cogent goals of freedom and justice. This is what we defend: Faith that people can rule themselves through reason, an orphaned belief for millennia prior to the United States.

Radical Islamic fundamentalists claim divine authority and ultimate truth, rejecting inquiry, seeking to impose their world-view on the rest of the world through their version of religiously sanctioned murder. Church and state are one, and due process and freedom are irrelevant. Aside from religious imagery and embrace of suicide as means of murder, their creed resembles Nazism and communism. It is as much our duty as our right to discredit and destroy the idea of radical Islamic fundamentalism. And in so doing, we must not trample our superior ideals to save them; indeed, we must hold true to principles of freedom and democracy to enable their uncorking.

Dr. Bala Ambati is a former fellow in the School of Medicene and is presently on the faculty at the Medical College of Georgia. His column appears regularly.


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