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The Durango Herald - News - Durango, CO


Testing our ideals
Attacks challenge American's basic belief in unity through diversity

October 14, 2001

By Ellen Stuart Roberts
On The Law

Sept. 11 will be the true test of our national and state constitutions and the ideals behind them. Will we rise to the challenge or will the terrorists be successful in setting us up to defeat ourselves by becoming the "house divided" that cannot stand?

I am not a constitutional scholar, but in difficult times, it is essential to go back to one’s core values. This leads me to our Declaration of Independence, which was succinct, yet raw with emotion. The colonists told the British king that he wasn’t fit to rule this new country because he wasn’t respectful of the differences among people that the colonists demanded be tolerated.

The colonists were willing to give their lives to achieve a nation founded on principled tolerance and equality. A nation where the common good takes precedence over the privileged few.

Our federal Constitution creates a "more perfect union" than what existed before the United States. It speaks of a more perfect, not "the" perfect union. Our founders were realists as they set forth that lofty goal, allowing for the fact that more than 200 years later, we are still trying to get it perfect.

Colorado’s Constitution also has a Bill of Rights that begins with "All political power is vested in and derived from the people; all government, of right, originates from the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole." We have in the past taken these legal legacies seriously.

We will be fine tuning our nation for many years still to come. Nearly every American can tell you how things could be done better. But, it must have been disappointing to Osama bin Laden and those of like mind, that we didn’t break out into devastating civil war after last year’s bitterly contested presidential election. There was anger, maybe even outrage, but no violence occurred and Americans went on with their lives.

This would have been a very different scenario in many other countries. But, willingly governed by law, the American people accepted the results once a long and scrutinized recount was over. We were willing to see our nation and its processes as the not-yet-perfect union and we kept our sense of humor and our dignity.

There is nothing humorous about Sept. 11, and, after the shock of a loss wears off, those in grief often feel deep, sometimes irrational, anger and bitterness. But, we, as a country and as individuals, need the resilient spirit we have shown before and must continue to honor the respect and tolerance for difference that was demanded by the colonists.

Americans are famous for wrangling over issues, whether it takes place in a capitol or on the street corner. While that divisiveness can detract from our effectiveness, the debate process generally yields wiser decisions than if it was stifled. Law passed by the majority can be a slow, painful process, but when done in a deliberate way, it is not mob rule or rule by an evil few.

While Americans want to and need to debate where we go from here, whether it’s about military action, economic bailouts, or invasive governmental action affecting civil liberties, we need to remember the challenge that our democratic process requires of us. Hear out your neighbor, your legislator. Don’t let "opinion rage" close your ears before you hear something you might not like, but may need to consider. Keep the common good in mind.

This is the American way. We need to guard against letting anyone, most of all ourselves, take that away from us.

We have learned to live side by side, atheists monitoring evangelicals, southerners marrying northerners, conservatives arguing with liberals, and the rich sitting next to those with much less. Here, in the grocery store aisles, you can hear conversations in English, Spanish or Navajo, yet we have managed to make life work. Diversity, in people’s backgrounds or opinions, is not a comfortable or easy thing to accept or grow with. But therein lies the strength of America.

Because of the intense feelings of fear, deep sadness and anger stirred within us by the events of Sept. 11, our challenge is to stand as a house united, while allowing dissenting voices to be heard and respected. May we have the strength to meet the challenge and continue that noble, democratic tradition as the rest of the world watches us.

Ellen Roberts is a Durango lawyer and past president of the Southwest Colorado Bar Association. Reach her at eroberts@frontier.net .

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