U.S. Supreme Court justices tend to keep a low profile. But in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has served on the U.S. Supreme Court since 1988, has responded by engaging in what he calls a "Dialogue on Freedom." The program aims to foster discussion by students, judges, and lawyers about American values and civic traditions.
Justice Anthony Kennedy is standing in the center of a university auditorium. Joined by Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller, Justice Kennedy addresses a panel of about 30 freshmen, asking them hypothetical questions about an unexpected visit to an imaginary nation called "Quest."
"You are in this country involuntarily. You meet young people your age and they talked about America. And they were critical of America. What do you think were their principal criticisms of the United States?," he asked.
The New York University students, who represent many ethnic, religious and racial backgrounds, and whose styles range from died pink hair to conservative jackets and ties, are eager to participate in the Socratic discussion with the famous legal experts.
"We sometimes seem to back the wrong people. Anything else?," Mr. Kennedy asked. "I might say that it is pretty obvious that the United States has a high standard of living compared to some of the less fortunate countries in the world. They could hold that against us, somehow [they think] we achieved that unfairly, that could be one of the reasons," answered one student.
Understanding how other nations perceive the United States and the U.S. role in the international community has received an added sense of urgency since the September 11 attacks.
The imaginary nation of "Quest" is an impoverished country with a corrupt leadership, which fails to implement its own constitution. A charismatic speaker named Drummer, who preaches a mixture of religion and hatred of the United States, along with the need to destroy American power and influence, gains popularity among the poor.
Justice Kennedy and Professor Miller pose questions to students in the program developed by the American Bar Association. Justice Kennedy asks: What role does the United States have to step in should Drummer come to power, creating an authoritarian male-dominated society that allows slavery?
"Who are we to come in and say we do not believe in your rules, your rules are wrong and ours are right? We are going to tell you what to do, we are going to take over your country and you are going to live by our rules and not by yours," a student ansers.
"And suppose the rule was that every third female child was to be sold into slavery?," Mr. Kennedy asks.
"It is wrong, but then again a lot of different countries believe that many of the things that we do in our country are wrong, so who is right?," a panalist answered.
In another question, Mr. Kennedy asked, "Suppose that the government decided to slaughter all of the minority tribe? There is nothing wrong with the Hutus slaughtering the Tutsi population, 800,000 in a period of months, something far more efficient than the Holocaust just in terms of numbers, nothing wrong with that because that is what the majority of the people want?"
The student ultimately concludes that action could be taken against "Quest" with support from the international community.
The forum is held just months after the U.S. led campaign overthrew the Taleban regime in Afghanistan, which harbored al-Qaida terrorists. And it comes at a time when Americans and U.N. members are debating a possible U.S. action against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
But Justice Kennedy takes the discussion one step further. He asks the students what obligation they have as individuals visiting "Quest" to expose citizens to American values and culture.
Some of the students warn against imposing American views on freedoms of speech, religion, and the right to property on the rest of the world. Justice Kennedy calls for the youngsters to spread the word on the rights laid out in the U.S. Constitution.
"These are some very basic values that we have," he said. "And you must preserve them. But you are going to preserve them only if the rest of the world understands the great principles that underlie our freedom and the capacity it gives you to achieve and to think and to aspire into change."
Justice Kennedy says that the future of the younger generations is inextricably linked to the people in the rest of the world. He calls for the students to connect with people in other countries intellectually, emotionally, and physically because the world is getting smaller.