Just about everybody last week missed the real significance of the United States pulling its soldiers from Iraq's cities. It had less to do with celebrations and everything to do with a beacon.
I saw a lot of punditry about the "botched" six-year war, about the killing during those years and about Saddam Hussein's non-existent weapons of mass destruction. I read a few thoughtful essays on the future of Iraq.
But no one seemed to grasp the significance of the world's only superpower invading a country, overthrowing its government, establishing an occupying force ... and then voluntarily loosening its grip, returning that nation to its people after helping them establish a representative government.
Who does that sort of thing?
That's a question worth pondering this Fourth of July weekend. The answer is, a true beacon does.
I suppose most people missed this angle because we've come to expect such things from the United States. This isn't a partisan thing. The nation didn't go into Iraq with the intention of occupying it forever, just as the United States had no interest in occupying conquered territories after World War II. The Soviet Union did, but it acted pretty much the way most powers in the history of the earth had under similar circumstances.
But if we have come to expect such things, it is because we owe a lot to the men who founded this nation, and the way they treated power.
England's King George III was reported to have said of George Washington that if he voluntarily relinquished power after two terms as president, he would be "the greatest man in the world." Voluntarily giving up power is among the most counter-intuitive things a person can do. And yet Washington not only relinquished it, he attended the inauguration of John Adams and made the highly symbolic decision to let Adams and his vice president, Thomas Jefferson, leave the room first.
He acted as a beacon, and he lit the way for the orderly transfer of power in this nation ever since.
But then, King George III probably never truly read the Declaration of Independence, which declared equality, certain God-given unalienable rights and a government deriving its powers from the people as "self-evident" truths. Nor is it likely he studied the Constitution, which makes a point of limiting government's powers, lets its citizens be armed, allows the freedom to worship, assemble, petition the government and freely criticize anyone in power, among other things.
We take all this for granted, but it flies in the face of human nature. Usually once a week or so I have to answer a reader who rails about an opinion published on these pages. Nearly always, the reader wishes this newspaper would not print such things. And nearly always, the offending opinion merely expressed a point of view with which the reader disagreed.
If the First Amendment didn't exist, the nation would be significantly different. Every president in recent memory has tried hard to manipulate information and control the spin on its message. President Barack Obama, for example, recently arranged for someone from the Huffington Post to attend a press conference and ask a question.
And because of a free press, I can write about that and not worry about reprisals.
I've always felt it was significant that, while Americans argue endlessly over the meaning of the Constitution — over original intent versus the unique needs of current times — virtually nobody, other than some on the fringes, advocates scuttling the Constitution and writing a new one.
The United States isn't perfect. The occupation of Iraq included the abuse at the Abu Ghraib, politicians routinely violate trusts, criminals abuse others and leave a trail of helpless victims.
But the beacon still glows bright. That's worth remembering this weekend, and always.