Is America great?

We were on a road outside Freetown, Sierra Leone, en route to the tiny village of Yoyema when Saido Kamara asked me that. The drive to Yoyema, they told me, was about 75 miles. Getting there would take us half the day. Sierra Leone has few highways worthy of the name; just craters separated at intervals by a poorly maintained road. It also has crushing poverty, epidemic corruption and many amputees maimed in a civil war that ended only a few years ago.

Is America great?

I’ve written before about the question my 22-year-old translator asked when I visited West Africa back in 2004. I resurrect the question now because it seems an apt one for a troubled nation that yesterday marked the 231st summer of its existence.

For all our prayers of peace, we are a nation at war. Our military is fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, of course, but that’s not what I mean – or at least, not all that I mean. We are also at war with ourselves, with the very idea and ideal of the United States of America.

We are fighting about immigration, a necessary conversation about securing our borders that nevertheless sinks often into mud holes of xenophobia and racism. We are fighting about diversity, and the Southern Poverty Law Center warns that the number of hate groups in this country has risen 40 percent since 2000. We are fighting about the abridgement of civil liberties, the conduct of war, the idea that torture should be a tool of interrogation.

We are fighting about identity, about who we are and who we are willing to be.

Is America great?

I told him yes, of course. Hedged it with disclaimers so he would not get too rosy an impression. But I told him yes.

Not that he needed my affirmation. The beatific smile on his face suggested he had already made up his mind beyond my ability to change or subtract. That smile bespoke a conviction: Hope lives in the United States. In so many places, hope lies strangled or stillborn, abandoned or forgot. But hope has a home in America.

Lately, I have been hearing more and more a term I like: “American exceptionalism,” as in the abiding conviction that this is a nation set apart, a nation unique among all the nations of the world.

And it seems to me it is not the people who make America great, but America that has made the people great. Meaning that we are blessed to have been shaped by revolutionary ideals. Equality before the law. The freedom of speech. The freedom of assembly. The freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. The inalienable right to pursue one’s own happiness.

Is America great?

Not always, no. And when we are not great, it has usually been because the people have been unable or unwilling or scared to be as large as the nation’s ideals. History tells us it has happened too often: with the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, with slavery, with government censorship of periodicals and songs during World War I, with the internment of Americans of Japanese heritage during World War II, with segregation, with McCarthyism, with government surveillance of civil rights workers and anti-war activists in the 1960s.

One can only wonder what history will someday say about this era where torture is defended, the rule of law is flouted, civil liberties are abridged, hate groups are rising, people are frightened and the very idea of American exceptionalism, that there are some risks you take, some things you don’t do, some challenges you just have to meet, because this is, after all, America, seems frayed and worn and spent.

And you might say, well, who cares? It’s just an ideal. Can ideals save this country?

Actually, ideals are the only things that ever have.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His e-mail address is: [email protected]