I call several Rochester firemen friends. Many are clients as well. They would admonish all of us that, if you see smoke, first run, then dial nine-one-one. They know too well the dangers of playing with fire. They put their lives on the line, literally, to protect the rest of us. All they ask, in return, is that we try to minimize the risk to ourselves, and to them, by using some basic intelligence. They want us to play it smart, starting with: Don’t play with matches.
Matches offer the easy ability to create wondrous light and life-saving warmth. For centuries, man had to protect fire. Clan members were charged with the responsibility to protect embers, to shield them from wind and rain. Now, people can easily re-create fire, simply by striking a match. But with that ease also comes danger. Be warned.
America holds a box of matches in its hands. Those matches come in all shapes and sizes, from small punch cards, to tiny black levers behind a closed curtain. But, rather than matches, we call these devices the vote. The ballot. The franchise. These devices, our right to vote is that which truly make us free. We can choose our own leaders. But, like matches, this freedom carries a grave responsibility. We must choose wisely.
In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, we hear the Grail Knight comment, “He chose poorly.” He further advises Indiana Jones, “You must choose. But choose wisely.” Everything about the current race for president tells me that we cannot afford to choose poorly. Our future depends on choosing wisely.
On one hand, Republicans can choose Donald Trump. Let’s see if we can see any smoke arising from that choice.
Mr. Trump suggests that a country “without borders” isn’t a country. He is absolutely correct. Note that he does not say a country “without walls” isn’t a country. That would not be correct. What he also fails to mention is that a country’s borders are more clearly defined by laws than by any other single element.
Many national borders are easily discernible. Oceans, rivers, mountain ranges and, yes, walls, often serve as visual signposts identifying national boundaries. But, in truth, they are, in fact, only that – signposts. Nothing more, nothing less! The ‘border’ itself exists in law. International treaties and internal laws determine the real borders.
And it is there, in code books and precinct stations, that America has the problem. We have laws. Some might suggest we have too many. But they conflict. They are confusing. They are not enforced. And, in some instances, others, whether the San Francisco Board of Supervisors or the President, put orders in place in defiance of laws enacted by Congress.
Until we fix our broken laws, we can never have a border. And, just as Trump allows, absent borders, we do not have a country. But Trump has no answer. A wall does not fix, indeed does not even address the problem. It is a placebo. Trump stirs up a false sense of national pride, tied to xenophobia, that he intends to cure with a sugar pill: a placebo. Smoke!
What else does Mr. Trump say? Well, although subject to some debate, he says he was against the Iraq war. He wants to pull back on the use of force. Makes sense. So do I. In general, I think playing Texas Ranger to the world is simply bad politics. But, I do believe America holds the tools to provide key leadership in maintaining a peaceful world. Although we have not done a very good job exerting that leadership of late, the potential still remains.
But what of Trump’s views? He would have a nuclear armed world camp. For decades, many of the world’s most powerful nations have worked diligently to restrict the proliferation of nuclear weapons. We can argue the motives, but I think it is clear that the objective has been, and remains, a key goal in ensuring humanity does not trigger Armageddon. To the contrary, Trump says we should allow Japan, Korea, indeed Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear weapons. More smoke.
And what of Trump’s rallies? Frequently, violence has erupted. I do not suggest either Trump or his followers are to blame for each act, for every instance of violence. But I do see a wisp of smoke.
Trump condones, if not outright encourages, violent behavior. He assures his supporters that he wants to punch protesters in the face. He suggests dissenters should be carried out on stretchers. He offers to pay legal fees to those who are charged with assault and battery. He is now defending his campaign manager, who, we now know, despite protestations to the contrary, actually did forcibly grab the arm of a journalist. I leave it to the legal system to determine if any actual law was broken, but, in truth, a physical incident did occur. If you do not see any smoke in these actions, behind Trump’s rhetoric, you may need corrective lenses. Trust your nose! Do you not smell it?
While no longer politically correct, I’ll quote an old Cosby comedy routine: “Smoke, smoke, smoke! FIRE!"
Most Americans do not give thought to what it is that has given us so much opportunity, so much wealth. I hold the answer is simple. Despite the fortunes of a mild climate covering most of our country, despite arable land in abundance, and despite a treasure trove of natural resources, our national blessings are inherently the result of our freedom.
The U.S. Constitution is a remarkable document. If you have never read it, you owe yourself that gift. Read it. Regardless, the 1st Amendment is the keystone, the cornerstone, the linchpin of our freedom.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Humans, with all of our frailties, often mistake the meaning of these words. Many hold that ‘Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech’ means that they can say whatever they want while simultaneously denying others that same freedom. Many people conveniently omit ‘peaceably’ when asserting their right to assemble. Sadly, these words work well when taken as written. They work somewhat less well, if at all, when the text is changed to suit the reader.
More narrowly, however, our freedom of religion and freedom of speech are the two most critical elements of those freedoms enumerated in the 1st Amendment. One only need peruse a Reader’s Digest version of world history, indeed turn on the television and watch current events in the Middle East, to gain an appreciation of the importance of freedom of religion.
Trump is putting a match to the freedom of expression, whether of speech or press or worship. He ridicules those with dissenting views. Subtly, he suggests we should be like-minded. He uses normal human fears to stoke a religious fervor which leads to religious restrictions. America will rue the day we see any diminished freedom in either of these three areas of human expression.
I started this post with a fireman allegory. I end it with that as well. We have all driven by scenes that display human tragedy, with buildings going up in flames. But buildings are just bricks and mortar. Firemen know too well the often hidden costs. Unseen, behind those sheets of flame and billowing clouds of smoke, lives are often lost. While they are busy protecting us, firemen post a warning.
With respect to Mr. Donald J Trump, let us heed that warning. Let us not cross that line. Let us not abandon the values, the beliefs that truly made America great. Let us not exchange those high ideals for narrow-minded bigotry and hatred. Let us not substitute xenophobia for national pride. Failure to observe this warning will be the Great American Tragedy!