God bless America

Where the F word is not a dirty word, and what a breath of fresh air that is.

I've just returned from two weeks in the United States, hence my absence from these pages.

As the wife of current president of the NZ Bar Association, each year I get to tag along to sessions at the American Bar Association's annual conference. The US organisation is vastly different from this country's. For starters, their motto is, "Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice".

They have a "Rule of Law" luncheon where awards are given. In 2008 those honoured were lawyers who'd risked their lives to remain in Zimbabwe. Last year it was judges from Pakistan. This year, unfortunately, the format was different and some boring woman from Hilary Clinton's department read a speech (badly) about rape as a war weapon. Not that it wasn't a good topic, just that we didn't learn anything new.

Last year I also listened to an absorbing speech by Attorney General Eric Holder on why the three strikes legislation in America doesn't work in terms of reducing crime, and how the Obama administration would be basing corrections policy on evidence-based research, eg, drug courts, education and work in prisons. Keep up, New Zealand.

Two highlights this year: seeing the ABA medal of honour awarded to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and listening to her fascinating acceptance speech. After this brilliant, beautiful woman first graduated from Columbia Law School in 1959, she was refused employment solely because of her gender, despite a glowing reference from a Harvard law professor. That which doesn't destroy us certainly makes us stronger - Bader Ginsburg had a glowing career and was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993.

The second highlight - and this brings me to the theme of this blog - was ABA President Ms Lamm's speech. She talked of the role of the association's members - upholding liberty.

"If Freedom had a Facebook page," she said, "I wonder who would be its friends?

"Would one be a black woman on a bus, refusing to give up her seat?"

And so she continued.

Back in my hotel room, I turned on the telly to catch a full speech delivered in Chicago by President Obama, surely the world's greatest living orator? He, too, talked about freedom and the rule of law, acknowledging the criticism America wears for its attempts to export democracy. And what good is democracy, he added, without the rule of law? Without the rule of law, democracy is just mob rule. Quite.

These issues are dear to his heart. He was, after all, a lawyer specialising in constitutional law, which leads many critics to liken him to George W Bush. That is, a president who doesn't listen, who thinks he knows best.

And that has brought Obama trouble with this proposed Islamic centre two blocks away from Ground Zero in New York. It's a toughie. A poll taken showed some 60 per cent think building the centre there is a bad idea, but about 60 per cent again respect the constitutional right of the property owners to build the centre on their land, and the freedom to practice religion of their choice.

The President had been silent until Ramadan dinner at the White House when, carefully avoiding commenting on the wisdom of the project, he defended the Muslims' right to build it. "Freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion."

Obama inherited the US war against Afghanistan and Iraq and he's made it his mission to reach out to peaceful Muslims. As one commentator - in favour of the Muslim centre said - doesn't it say something to the world, that Americans can, in the midst of their pain of 9/11, still say, yes, we believe in freedom of religion and property rights? You can still build your mosque there.

Of course it would be better if the mosque, or Muslim centre, or whatever it's called, were sited elsewhere, but that would only be solved by self-regulation. Not force.

Americans are so lucky to be protected by two documents - the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. Right now, so-called "anchor babies" are being threatened with statelessness. In southern states there's a perceived problem of illegal immigrants crossing the border, then having a child which under the 14th Amendment gets US citizenship, to remain in America.

The 14th was written for the children of slaves (it excludes children of diplomats and members of Indian tribes who maintained sovereignty) and despite those who argue otherwise, does include today the children of illegal immigrants. Are the latter a problem? Look at the facts: illegal immigrants today are roughly the same percentage of the population (12.3) as they were in the 1860 Census (13.2).

However, there are strong moves afoot to change the 14th Amendment - a difficult process to be sure, but possible. I remember when I was in Parliament being disgusted when we changed our laws over babies born in this country.

But for all its faults - and there are many - I love the debate America has with itself, especially over issues of freedom, individual rights, how far they can be tested. And I love the fact you can sprinkle your conversation with the F word, without immediately being classified as someone to the right of Ghengis Khan.

But what really worries me right now, is how far someone will go when it comes to their President. He's a man of integrity. He is doing what he thinks is good for the country, not what he thinks is politically expedient.

It won't be an Islamist terrorist who takes him out from the grassy knoll, it will be an intolerant Waco-ist Yankee nutter.