I'm a U.S. Marine, and this Isn't the Freedom of Speech I Served to Protect | Opinion

More than ever before, and mainly thanks to President Trump, I've been thinking about a topic many often don't want to touch – for one reason or another they fear repercussion. But as someone who served in the US Marine Corps, who protected and defended the Constitution with his life, I think I've earned my place to speak my truth.

I'm referring to the topic of free speech. Once, this principle was meant to allow the freedom of conscience, thought and discourse. It was never intended to be about guaranteeing the right to open, relentless defamation and smearing.

It's time to take a long hard look at free speech and at ourselves, with some personal self-reflection on how we've been using that right. At the very least, we each need to figure out what role, if any, we are playing in its debasement. If not for our own sake, maybe for our kids, who are more than aware of the utter hypocrisy of how we want them to behave verses how the adults in the room are actually behaving.

We as a society appear to be struggling with the very basics of respect and dignity. Where do we strike the balance between freedom of speech and indecent speech? Freedom of speech and bigoted speech? Demeaning speech? Disrespectful speech? Divisive speech? Mocking speech? And how about outright hate speech?

Whether we want to admit it or not, lets face it—Americans are hurting. Not just because of the usual curveballs life throws us on a regular basis—as if dealing with those weren't already hard enough—but more so because of the way we have begun to treat each other. Our choice of words, the way we talk to each other, the text messages we send, our use of social media, and so on.

And although there's plenty of blame to go around, you can't help but mention the role our President continues to play. Tweet after tweet, rally after rally, he just doesn't seem to stop. It's as if every time he speaks he removes a part of what was generally accepted as part of our American ideals; liberty, equality, unity and diversity.

Just in the last few weeks, we had the whole "go back where you came from" comment in reference to four Congresswoman of color – three of whom were born in the United States. But it didn't stop there. In the same week, the President attended a rally in North Carolina where he continued to double down on his mortifying rhetoric singling out Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. His supporters started chanting "send her back" while the President quietly looked on.

And this week, my own home city, Baltimore, became national news after the President tweeted, while having a go at Congressman Elijah Cummings: "...as proven last week during a congressional tour, the Border is clean, efficient and well run, just very crowded. Cummings district is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess. If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous and filthy place"

What the President may have forgotten is, that "disgusting, rat and rodent infested...filthy place" is part of the same country he is supposed to be President of. And of the over 600,000 people living there, nearly 30 percent are under the age of 19. For a President claiming "America First" but yet seemingly choosing to exclude an entire population segment, 30% of which are American children or youth, is not only unsettling but disingenuous.

But what's more troubling is the way many (mainly Republicans) continue to either defend him or, at best, remain silent. Take for example his Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney who stated to Chris Wallace a few days back, "if Adam Schiff had said the same thing [as Elijah Cummings had,]the President would be attacking Adam Schiff in the same exact way today." In other words, he agreed with the President's reprehensible language, but suggested no one is excluded.

Or take Senator Rick Scott of Florida, who, when asked on Meet the Press if he thought the President's tweets amounted to good politics inside the Republican party, sought to explain it all away instead of condemning, saying "let's look at what [Trump] said, and why he did it...". Scott might have been defending his party's president, but he was also choosing party over principles, over American ideals.

And us? We all teach our children to say "please" and "thank you" but we ourselves aren't living up even to this basic level of politeness Sooner or later our children will call out the duplicity. And eventually we'll reap what we sow.

So no, Mr. President (and all others blindly in agreement,) free speech is not about you uttering every senseless, debilitating, dehumanizing, inciting thought or word out of your mouth. It was meant so you could be an individual, choose to offer a disciplined opinion and contribute towards the well being of a democracy without fear of retaliation.

And when you're indulging yourself in the former, you're eroding the very foundations of the latter. If your vitriol becomes all that free speech is about, who knows if future generations will still see it as sacrosanct.

Mansoor Shams is a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran, the founder of MuslimMarine.org and a Member on the Council on Foreign Relations. Twitter: @mansoortshams

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

I'm a U.S. Marine, and this Isn't the Freedom of Speech I Served to Protect | Opinion | Opinion
{{label}}
{{title}}
EDITOR'S PICK