At the heart of the American Security Council Foundation’s Step Up America program is a recognition that the men and women who serve in law enforcement and the military need the public’s support now more than ever. Toward that end, the Step Up America program aims to “educate and provide students, families and communities with the knowledge and tools they need to guard against national, homeland and cyber-security threats, while valuing and respecting the role our military, law enforcement and first responders play in protecting the nation.”
That’s an ambitious goal—and a worthy one. Let’s unpack it by focusing on three key words in the Step Up America mission.
Regardless of the causes—the fraying of the family, the downplaying of what Reagan called “civic ritual,” the rise of moral relativism—the American people need to be reminded of some core truths about their country.
First, we are blessed to live in America. The stuff we take for granted—consensus-based government, economic opportunity, the rule of law, individual rights, equality before the law, majority rule with minority rights, freedom of movement and conscience and speech, civilian control over the military and over law enforcement, clean water, dependable electricity—is the exception rather than the norm in this broken world. Only 43 percent of the people on earth live in a free country. Only 13 percent live in a developed, industrialized democracy. Only 4 percent live in America.
Second, America is a special country. Millions have made their way here from other lands because, as Reagan explained, “America is freedom.” (The preceding paragraph captures some of the byproducts of that freedom.) When they arrive, these Americans-in-the-making find a culture eager to graft in the new and the different—a nation where a refugee from Czechoslovakia could be entrusted to oversee U.S. foreign policy as secretary of state, where an Afghan immigrant could represent U.S. interests in Kabul or Baghdad (or both), where a Cuban or Taiwanese immigrant could grow up to serve in the president’s cabinet, where the son of a Turkish diplomat could grow up to run America’s most ubiquitous company (Coke), where a kid can start out as the son of a Soviet army officer, survive the Nazis, flee from the Red Army and become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Of course, there’s another reason America is special: Millions of Americans have journeyed to other lands to defend freedom. When the guns fall silent, Americans leave behind constitutions guaranteeing free government, equal rights, free speech and religious liberty.
That brings us to a third core truth about which some Americans need to be educated: The natural order of this world is not orderly—and is certainly not conducive to freedom. The blessings of freedom—indeed, freedom itself—must be defended. “Freedom is special and rare,” as Reagan put it. “It’s fragile; it needs protection.”
The hard work of protecting freedom is carried out by people in uniform, which explains why the Stand Up America program helps Americans draw a connection between law enforcement and the military. One group wears a flag on their shoulder, the other a badge on their chest. One group defends our freedom on faraway shores, the other on nearby city streets. They rush toward danger—whether it’s a burning building or a broken country, terrorist hideouts in Boston or Abbottabad, killer storms or brutal tyrants—while the rest of us run away from danger.
The late John Keegan argued in his History of Warfare that “All civilizations owe their origins to the warrior.” But more than that, all civilizations owe their preservation to the warrior. This is especially true of our civilization. We dare not think about it, but the line separating us, protecting us, guarding us from another dark age is terrifyingly thin.
How thin? America’s active-duty military comprises just 1.4 million personnel—that’s less than 0.5 percent of the population.
“If anyone thinks you can somehow thank them for their service and not support the cause for which they fight—America’s survival—then these people are lying to themselves and rationalizing away something in their own lives, but more importantly they are slighting our warriors and mocking their commitment to this nation,” as Gen. John Kelly (USMC) explained in 2010. “It’s not Bush’s war. It’s not Obama’s war. It’s our war and we can’t run away from it.”
Kelly knows well the price of preserving our civilization. He spoke those words just days after his son was killed in Afghanistan.
The veneer protecting us from the bad guys here at home is just as thin: There are an estimated 800,000 police officers in America. That “thin blue line,” as it has been called, is what stands between danger and safety, order and chaos. Too many Americans forget or take for granted that freedom without law, without some infrastructure of order, can quickly descend into license and then into anarchy. Those 800,000 police officers represent the rule of law. As so many of their badges remind us, they protect and serve the law-abiding public from those who show contempt for society by breaking the laws of society.
Likewise, those 1.4 million warriors who wear our nation’s uniform protect us and our interests and our way of life by keeping watch over our enemies, keeping our allies secure, keeping the skies and sea lanes open, and keeping the anarchy and violence so commonplace in other parts of the world at arm’s length.
If our defenders overseas and protectors at home merely placed themselves in harm’s way day after day—as they do—they would deserve our respect. The fact that they place themselves in harm’s way so that the rest of us might live in peace and safety and comfort and security should elicit more than our respect. What first-responders, law enforcement and military personnel do is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
So, how can everyday Americans show respect for this special group of public servants? Put another way, how can we step up for these American heroes?
We can step up for America by supporting the troops and their families while deployed; supporting the crucial mission they are executing, as Gen. Kelly reminded us; and welcoming the troops as they return home. The opportunities are literally all around us. Groups like the American Legion, USO, VFW and others are eager to connect Americans with the heroes who protect us.
We can step up for America by hiring veterans—and by providing incentives to hire veterans. The unemployment rate among recent veterans is much higher than the general-population unemployment rate. Wal-Mart is setting a good example, taking the initiative to hire more than 100,000 veterans in the next five years.
We can step up for America by comforting the wounded. Lincoln’s counsel of 1865 remains just as true today. We must “care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” And we must remember that in the 21st century, the battle is sometimes borne by cops on the beat, as the Boston Marathon bombings and manhunt remind us.
We can step up for America by supporting government officials, policies and candidates committed to protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty.
And we can step up for America by promoting and teaching American exceptionalism. “We’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important,” Reagan advised, warning that “an eradication of the American memory” could lead to “an erosion of the American spirit.”
A quarter-century later—as schools teach about the fads and irrelevancies of the present rather than the enduring truths of the past, as parts of the country balkanize into ethno-national fragments, as political leaders struggle to grasp American exceptionalism, as pundits consign America to the downward slope of decline—we know Reagan’s prognosis was accurate. And we know it’s time for us to step up.