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Weíre Not Number One

By Jean Hay
June 2000

Another Memorial Day has come and gone. The new D-Day Museum in New Orleans has just opened. Funds are being raised for a World War II memorial in Washington.

I was born in 1947, in the aftermath of that war. With grandparents who had been immigrants at the turn of the century, I was raised to understand that America was a special place, unlike any other in the world. People were good here, justice would be done, the government knew best and was there to protect us -- and the rest of the world -- from evil. World War II proved that.

As I read todayís headlines (any today, it seems) I canít help but notice the contrast between what it meant to be an American in the years after World War II and what it means now.

After that war, it was clear the good guys won. We did a remarkable thing, stopping an evil empire that was systematically killing millions of its own citizens in a misguided sense of racist ultra-superiority.

In these days of lesser apparent evils, however, the government I was raised to trust and revere seems too often to be on the wrong side of the equation.

Take the very air we breathe.

Congress has refused to sign the international treaty to limit life-threatening pollution emissions to help in the fight against global warming. Why? Because, as one of the biggest polluters, the United States would have to cut back, while other countries, who arenít as industrially developed, donít have as many cars and messy power plants and therefore donít pollute as much, will not have to tighten their belts until many years hence. But we donít want to stop doing what weíre doing. Corporate ads proclaim the treaty is unfair, because we would have to sacrifice while others in other countries would not. We donít want a level playing field in the world community. After all, weíre number one. Pollution is one of the prices we pay.

Meanwhile, the number of asthma cases is skyrocketing.

Then there are the land mines, that awful, non-discriminating weapon accurately labeled "anti-personnel." Against people.

We refuse to sign the international treaty to ban land mines, despite the fact that a woman from Vermont won the Nobel Peace Prize a few years ago for her non-profit organizationís success in bringing the issue to the attention of so many world governments. Ostensibly our excuse is that we need anti-personnel land mines (along with anti-tank land mines) to protect our troops in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Except now those two enemies are in negotiations, with a possible reunification being openly discussed. If those two warring countries settle their differences and the demilitarized zone goes away, will we then sign the international treaty? What will be our excuse then? And why is the United States not the leader on this issue, instead of a recalcitrant obstacle?

Once again, we are getting in the way of world progress toward a better, safer, healthier world.

We are the only country in the so-called civilized Western world to still have a death penalty. Governmentally-sanctioned murder in the name of justice. Weíre number one. Doesnít that make you proud? It makes me sick.

The argument is that killing them will teach them a lesson. Except it wonít, because lessons are for the future, and theyíre dead. And study after study has shown that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime, because criminals in capital cases never think they will get caught -- or simply never think at all, which is just as bad, and why they are in jail to begin with.

On that note, I am proud of Maine for abolishing its death penalty more than 100 years ago, and for continuing to make the ban stick in the face of moves to reinstate it. Guess that makes us more civilized than most of the rest of the country -- Texas in particular, where Gov. George W. Bush is setting some kind of record for executions during his time in office.

Some politicians, including one Republican running for Congress this year in Maine, keep repeating the mantra that we have the worldís best medical system. And we should. But we donít. Our infant mortality rate is worse than more than a dozen other countries, recent news tells us that our healthy life expectancy is down there on the charts as well. Sure, politicians point to wealthy people in other countries, from Canada to Jordan, who come here for their medical treatment because they canít get it at home. But people in this country who arenít wealthy, or who donít have good insurance, canít get that medical treatment either. Problem is, all those poor, unhealthy low-lifes are bringing down all those national statistics. Makes the country look bad.

It is easy to point to the flashy success stories and the medical breakthroughs. But itís apparently politically difficult to make quality health care available to all our citizens. Why is that? The people clearly want it. Why is our government not looking after us like it should?

Which brings us to the ludicrous argument put forward by the pharmaceutical companies in recent legislative hearings over the new state law that requires fair drug pricing in Maine. The drug companies actually threatened us with a pull-out. Make us sell our drugs for the same price to everyone, they charged, and weíll just stop sending to Maine the drugs not under contract with insurance companies or the government. They could not seem to fathom that the disappearance of those drugs from drugstore pharmacy shelves would not make a lick of difference to anyone who has not bought that prescribed medication in Maine because they simply couldnít afford it.

This arrogance is coming from drug companies who contend they must recover billions in research costs from the uninsured, since thatís the only group that doesnít have the clout to tell them to go to hell. But it has been our government labs that have done most of that basic research. Why do we let them get away with that? And hurray for Chellie Pingree and Mark Lawrence for doing something about it.

Thereís more. Congress failed to approve the signing of the International Test Ban Treaty, the only major nuclear nation to refuse to do so. Are you glad of that?

Congress and George W. Bush are all hot to trot to develop an expensive, and so far ineffectual, missile defense system, even if it violates an existing Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. Is it safer to have a missile defense system that doesnít work, or fewer nuclear weapons in the world to worry about shooting down?

The good news is that Clinton has promised Russia and our European allies that we will share the missile-defense technology with them, once we develop it at great expense to the American taxpayer. It sounds sort of like the deal we have with the drug companies -- weíll foot the bill and do all the research, and youíll reap the benefits. If Congress took his promise seriously, they would kill the whole program in a minute. Of course, Clintonís promise dies when his term of office ends, so itís a bunch of empty words, and Congress figures it can wait him out.

And then thereís the US being a deadbeat dad towards the United Nations, the very organization set up after World War II to make sure that such a conflagration would never happen again.

Why wonít the richest nation in the world pay its dues? Because enough men in Congress donít like the idea that women in some foreign countries are being treated as if they were human beings who have a right to determine their own reproductive lives. Theyíve told the UN that we will deny them our share of their operating funds until they change their moral ways. Talk about bedfellows making strange politics.

America today, at least at the governmental level, is not what I was taught America was all about, fresh off the end of World War II. We should be Number One, first in the world with ideas, technology, overall health care, low infant mortality, high literacy, things the rest of the world uses to measure the progress of a civilization. Look at any bottom line you want. Weíre not.

Congress is not the only problem, but it is a good place to start looking for a solution. We must demand excellence of our politicians, who in turn must demand it from our corporations and institutions.

And, as citizens, we must ourselves start demanding excellence, with accountability, from those corporations and institutions -- from our schools, our legislators, our public servants.

I like the vision of America I was raised with. I want to see that America in action, on the ground and running. Itís possible, but itís long overdue.

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