Frances Stead Sellers: There will be no joy in Baltimore on the Fourth of July

My neighbours feel a peculiarly American sense of shame over what happened at Abu Ghraib
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The Independent Online

It will be a festival of red, white and blue here tomorrow as it is every Fourth of July, when the ladder truck from the Roland Park firehouse leads a parade of star-spangled children on star-spangled bicycles through our north Baltimore neighbourhood. There will be backyard cookouts, fireworks at the harbour, even readings of the Declaration of Independence. And, if the past few weeks have been any indication, there will also be an uneasy discussion of what the values enshrined in that declaration stand for today.

It will be a festival of red, white and blue here tomorrow as it is every Fourth of July, when the ladder truck from the Roland Park firehouse leads a parade of star-spangled children on star-spangled bicycles through our north Baltimore neighbourhood. There will be backyard cookouts, fireworks at the harbour, even readings of the Declaration of Independence. And, if the past few weeks have been any indication, there will also be an uneasy discussion of what the values enshrined in that declaration stand for today.

Monday's Supreme Court's refusal to endorse the White House claim that the government has authority to deny terror suspects access to courts or lawyers while interrogating them has given some reassurance that the US has not entirely replaced principle with pragmatism. But people remain disturbed by the revelations about the actions of American soldiers in Iraq and concerned about the authority under which they acted. Among my neighbours, 40 miles north of the capital in Washington, shock at the stomach-churning degradation of fellow human beings at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison has been replaced by what strikes my British perceptions as a peculiarly American sense of shame.

The reason for this enduring anguish is that the lingering questions surrounding the prisoner abuse have struck at the core of American national identity. In some ways, Americans do think that America is better than the rest of the world. It's not, as some of my European friends suspect, that they think of themselves simply as superior individuals, the self-motivated descendants of go-getter immigrants, though they are proud of that spirit. Nor do Americans believe in their cultural superiority, as many Europeans do. Americans believe, instead, that their institutions are superior, that they have, as a nation, created a system of checks and balances that should prevent human beings from indulging their basest impulses and hold them accountable if they do.

What American soldiers did in Baghdad, then, remains not only a terrible betrayal of their Iraqi victims, but also of everything Americans have been brought up to believe in and to celebrate each Fourth. The notion that this country adheres to, and promotes, higher standards is not only its founding philosophy but its ongoing moral guide. It's easy to mock so-called American exceptionalism, to equate it with arrogance, or to see it as an excuse for riding roughshod over the rest of the world. It represents a kind of living idealism that seems foreign to Europeans, who have, until recently at least, fashioned national unity out of common history, common culture and even common genes.

It's hard to imagine a Museum of British Rights on London's Pall Mall along the lines of the National Constitution Center on Philadelphia's Independence Mall which opened on 4 July last year .When I visited that centre last summer - a bold, futuristic building close to the18th-century site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence - I was struck, even amused, by the sometimes theatrical effort to illustrate what this country stands for. "We, the people," actors repeatedly intoned as they sought to derive contemporary meaning from a fusty Bill of Rights. The place was packed, though, and on one wall, plastered with yellow Post-It notes, visitors had created a humbling reminder of what American freedoms mean to them. For one, being American was about finding a refuge from a repressive regime; for another, it was the very act of being allowed to denounce the government in such a public forum.

With a population that is constantly renewing itself, Americans find themselves continually engaged in promulgating values that they believe are universal, although people in some countries fear they will never have them and others take them for granted. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised to discover on a recent visit to Runnymede, the site where the principle of "freedom under law" was established in 1215 by the signing of the Magna Carta, that the memorial there was erected not by the Inns of Court but by the American Bar Association.

The reaction of my neighbours to what has happened in Iraq, their sense of shared responsibility, offers a glimpse into why people sometimes say they are proud to be American. They are not proud now. Far from it. For they, too, can see that without its idealism, America is nothing but a sorry bunch of go-getters, festooned in red, white and blue.

The writer is a journalist working on 'The Washington Post'

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