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Joseph Sabino Mistick

Joseph Sabino Mistick: America still a shining city on a hill?

| Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018, 8:03 p.m.
Migrants run from tear gas launched by U.S. agents, amid photojournalists covering the Mexico-U.S. border, after a group of migrants got past Mexican police at the Chaparral crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, Nov. 25.
Migrants run from tear gas launched by U.S. agents, amid photojournalists covering the Mexico-U.S. border, after a group of migrants got past Mexican police at the Chaparral crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, Nov. 25.

Ronald Reagan spoke of America as a shining city upon a hill throughout his political career, and in his presidential farewell address to the nation, he described that image with the clarity and freedom that often comes with age and reflection.

Reagan saw America as “God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity.”

“And if there had to be city walls,” he said, “the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

This image of America has been embraced by a diverse group of national leaders that includes John F. Kennedy, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama and Ted Cruz. But, it began with Puritan settler John Winthrop, in a sermon to freedom-seeking fellow Puritans headed for the Massachusetts Bay colony.

Citing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Winthrop reminded them, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” And he warned them that if they lost faith and failed, they would “be made a story and a byword through the world.”

This is what the world saw last week: a frantic mother, dragging her two daughters away from a gas attack by American border guards, one child barefoot and both in diapers, with barbed-wire and a smoking tear gas canister as a backdrop.

This supremely un-American image was captured by Reuters photojournalist Kim Kyung-Hoon in Tijuana, Mexico, after a peaceful demonstration by Central American freedom seekers spun out of control. And this image went viral in a way that Winthrop could never have imagined.

Add this to the misguided policy to separate families at the border, and you begin to see that there is a new image of America, much different than Reagan’s, that is now becoming “a byword through the world.” Children have been pulled from their parents’ arms, and an untold number will never be reunited with their families.

We are going through a tough stretch in which there is a political market for this gratuitous cruelty. Some Americans easily accept the punishment of innocent children for the perceived sins of their parents, without considering how that would affect their own children.

Others insist that there are bad guys hiding among these families, and they have a point, but they gloss over the harm to the children. Bad guys will always try to blend in and use innocents to shield their bad intentions.

Still, America should never bomb a school filled with children because there is a bad guy hiding in the basement. And that should never justify declaring war on the ideals upon which America was founded.

Ronald Reagan saw America differently nearly 30 years ago, when he said, “After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm.”

“And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer. Reach him at

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