THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF CITIZENSHIP (17)
(To be published on Veteran’s Day, November 11 or 12)
Recently I heard about a poll taken of high school students that asked them only two questions. The first was: “What are the benefits of being a citizen of the United States of America?” The students generally responded by furnishing a long list of benefits, such as enjoying our Constitutional freedoms, entitlement to a good education and such things as clean air and water, the promise of a good job and a gratifying life, etc. and etc.
The second question was: “What are the responsibilities of being a citizen of the United States of America?” That list was quite short, with most students providing only a few comments about reasonably paying your taxes and voting in elections, and a few mentioned jury service as well. That was all.
What a sorry situation! Of course we have benefits conferred upon us by being blessed to be citizens of this great country. But with those also come responsibilities! And if our children do not realize this fact, we have no one to blame but ourselves!
So what are the responsibilities that go along with citizenship? Yes, it is our responsibility to protect our Constitution, pay our lawful taxes, serve on juries and vote in elections. But there is so much more, and we are remiss in not focusing upon these duties both for ourselves and for our children.
In my view it is our fundamental responsibility to try to leave this world a better place than we found it. That means we do not pollute or otherwise “foul our nest,” even though we may not get a tax break for it. We clean up after ourselves, and we recycle.
Yes, we should vote in elections. But simply voting the way other people tell us to, or worse, the way the advertisements indoctrinate us to is not the desired end. Instead it is our responsibility to be educated and informed voters! And we should readily agree to serve on juries, because in that way we play an important part of our own government.
But our responsibilities do not stop there. We have an affirmative responsibility in a republic to inform ourselves and to speak out on the issues of our day. We also have an obligation to seek out good candidates for office and to support them. This support should not be limited to giving money to their campaigns, but should also include walking precincts for them, putting up yard signs, and opening our doors for fundraisers and “meet and greet” sessions to introduce the candidates to our neighbors.
Did you notice, like I did, after the horrors of September 11, 2001 all of the American flags that people flew on their cars? But did you also notice that the turnout at the next election, which was less than two months later, was distressingly poor? Where were all of those flag-waving people when it came time to vote?
Of course there are many other legal and moral obligations that go along with good citizenship, like helping to feed the poor, provide for the elderly and mentally disabled, honoring ones parents, and obeying our laws. These are generally well recognized. But there is at least one more that often avoids notice, and that is the responsibility of mentoring.
Those of us who are blessed to have “chosen our parents well” also have a responsibility to help to mentor those children who did not “choose” their parents quite as effectively. There is absolutely no substitute for raising children with large helpings of “the old one-two,” which is love and affection, on the one hand, and personal responsibility on the other. We can provide those things and a good example to children both in our public and our private lives. We as mentors can do that – and we must!
But why discuss all of this today? Because today is Veteran’s Day, and we also have a responsibility to the veterans of our Armed Forces. This means more than simply expressing our appreciation to them for their service – although that is important. When these men and women answered the call – for whatever reason – and put on the uniform of our military forces, for our part we promised to support them all the way.
That means we protect them with the best military training and material we reasonably can provide. Furthermore, if they are killed while in our service, we will take their place in providing reasonable care for their dependents. And if these vets are injured we will provide them with first-rate care for as long as it is reasonably required. By the way, it also means that if we see veterans who are amputees or otherwise seriously injured, we will not look away from them as if they are unlike the rest of us. Instead we will look them in the eye like normal people, thank them sincerely for their service to our country and treat them like the heroes that they are.
Whether we agree with the political decisions to have put our troops into Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Kuwait, Afghanistan or Iraq is simply not the issue. We always keep our promises to our troops. Part of the funding of a war is the funding of its casualties. It is an act of responsible citizenship.
The three most patriotic places I have ever been in my life are the Arlington National Cemetery, Ellis Island and the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii. Frankly I got tears in my eyes and extra strength in my heart from my visits to each place. Especially at the USS Arizona, which has a memorial that is constructed lower in the middle over the sunken battleship. This symbolizes the lowest ebb of our morale and spirit when the ship went down, and higher on the sides as we moved away from the tragedy.
Our morale and spirit naturally climb when we take our responsibilities of citizenship seriously and thereby do our part to contribute to the continuing greatness of our country. So please join with me in flying your flag proudly today in celebration of Veteran’s Day. And along the way, let us join together in the contemplation of and commitment to good citizenship and all that this commitment entails.
Our troops today and throughout our history have shown their commitment and citizenship by having safeguarded our freedoms and our heritage, often at great personal sacrifice. We owe it to them and to our country to carry out our commitments as well.
James P. Gray is a judge of the Orange County Superior Court, and the composer of the high school musical “Americans All.”