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Freedom and the `rule of law'

YOU'VE talked here often and eloquently, [Colonel North], about the need for a democratic outcome in Nicaragua. There's no disagreement on that. There is disagreement over how best to achieve that objective. Many Americans agree with the President's policy. Many do not. Many patriotic Americans, strongly anticommunist, believe there's a better way to contain the Sandinistas, to bring about a democratic outcome in Nicaragua and to bring peace to Central America.

And many patriotic Americans are concerned that in the pursuit of democracy abroad we not compromise it in any way here at home.

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You and others have urged consistency in our policies. You've said repeatedly that if we are not consistent, our allies and other nations will question our reliability. That's a real concern. But if it's bad to change policies, it's worse to have two different policies at the same time, one public policy and an opposite policy in private.

And that's exactly what was done when arms were sold to Iran and arms were swapped for hostages.

Now you've talked a lot about patriotism and the love of our country. Most nations derive from a single tribe, a single race. They practice a single religion. Common racial, ethnic, religious heritages are the glue of nationhood for many.

The United States is different. We have all races, all religions. We have a limited common heritage. The glue of nationhood for us is the American ideal of individual liberty and equal justice.

The rule of law is critical in our society. It's the great equalizer, because in America everybody is equal before the law. We must never allow the end to justify the means where the law is concerned.

However important and noble an objective - and surely democracy abroad is important and is noble - it cannot be achieved at the expense of the rule of law in our country.

Before I entered the Senate, I had the great honor of serving as a federal judge. In that position, I had great power. The one I most enjoyed exercising was the power to make people American citizens. From time to time, I presided at what we called naturalization ceremonies. They're citizenship ceremonies.

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These are people who came from all over the world - risked their lives, sometimes left their families and their fortunes behind to come here. They'd gone through the required procedures and I, in the final act, administered to them the oath of allegiance to the United States and I made them American citizens.

To this moment, it was the most exciting thing I've ever done in my life. The ceremonies were always moving for me, because my mother was an immigrant, my father the orphaned son of immigrants. Neither of them had any education.

They worked at very menial tasks in our society. But because of [the] openness of America, because of equal justice under the law in America, I sit here today a United States senator.

And after every one of these ceremonies I made it a point to speak to these new Americans. I asked them why they came, how they came. And their stories, each of them, were inspiring.

And when I asked them why they came, they said several things, mostly - the first is, they said they came because here in America everybody has a chance for opportunity.

And they also said over and over again, particularly people from totalitarian societies, they came here because here in America you can criticize the government without looking over your shoulder.

Now, you've addressed several pleas to this committee, very eloquently. None more eloquent than last Friday when in response to a question by Representative [Dick] Cheney, you asked that Congress not cut off aid to the contras, for the love of God and for the love of country.

I now address a plea to you. Of all the qualities the American people find compelling about you, none is more impressive than your obvious deep devotion to this country. Please remember that others share that devotion and recognize that it is possible for an American to disagree with you on aid to the contras and still love God and still love this country just as much as you do.

Although he is regularly asked to do so, God does not take sides in American politics, and in America disagreement with the policies of the government is not evidence of lack of patriotism.

Indeed it's the very fact that Americans can criticize their government openly and without fear of reprisal that is the essence of our freedom and that will keep us free.

Now, I have one final plea. Debate this issue vigorously as you have and as you surely will, but please, do it in a way that respects the patriotism and the motives of those who disagree with you as you would have them respect yours. Thank you very much, Colonel.

Excerpts from a statement by Sen. George Mitchell (D) of Maine after questioning Lt. Col. Oliver North on July 13.

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