THE BEDEVILING TRUTH OF AN OPEN NATION

They get to land at our airports without being destroyed. They get to enter our country without being arrested. They get to drive on our streets without their limos exploding. They get to sleep in our hotels – protected by our Secret Service – knowing no one will barge in and behead them.

And while they are here, they call our president “the devil” and call the Holocaust a myth, then return to the airport and fly home safely.

If last week’s United Nations badmouthing appearances of Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tested anything – besides our patience – it tested our sense of fairness. As a country founded on “liberty and justice for all,” we expect balance. If we are good, you should be good. Even as children, we scream “that’s not fair!” as if it is a precept of nature.

By the way, it is not. In many countries “fair” doesn’t exist. You are born into a certain class, you stay there. You’re on the wrong side of the dictator, you lose your rights.

We don’t do things that way. So when our approach to life clashes with another, we often feel shortchanged. We look at men like Chavez, the hothead Venezuelan president, and Ahmadinejad, the deviously hypocritical president of Iran, spouting their junk on our shores, and we say, “Why are we letting these people talk?” The values of a nation

It’s a fair question (there’s that word again). After all, very few of our enemies would allow President George W. Bush to enter their turf, say their leader smells like the devil’s sulfur, and expect to go home alive.

But we follow rules in this country, and one of those rules is freedom of speech. It’s the reason the United Nations can exist on our ground. And it’s the reason we have to tolerate the hate, vitriol and bald-faced lies we heard last week.

It doesn’t mean we have to like it.

If you’re like me, it sticks in your craw that a creep like Ahmadinejad can stand before the UN and suggest that everyone is entitled to “tranquility, peace and a dignified life” when we know last year he was telling a different audience that Israel “must be wiped off the map.”

Or that Chavez, one of the world’s great power-lusters, calls Bush a dictator and ends his news conference by saying to reporters: “I have a meeting with the axis of evil somewhere around here, so I have to go.”

But this is who we are. This is the test we face. If we believe principles are precious – like free speech – we are bound to live by them. Even when it hurts. An eye for an eye

This is also why we squirm so much on the detainee issue. We wring our hands over whether we can keep suspected terrorists in a cold room or blast rock music at them – yet we know if the roles were reversed, they’d just shoot us. Cut our heads off. No trials. No national media to expose them. Who do they answer to?

The answer is they don’t. The answer is it isn’t fair. The answer is terrorists don’t have formal governments, they don’t sign treaties. We could slit a detainee’s throat and say, “That’s for Daniel Pearl,” or we could hold Ahmadinejad in a basement and say, “That’s for the Iranian hostage crisis.”

The fact that we don’t is what makes us special. The fact that we don’t is what sets us apart. If we shut the microphones on every disliked foreigner, if we killed first and asked questions later, we might feel better, momentarily, in this terrible fight. But we’d lose the one thing we need the most.

We’d lose the feeling that we are the good guys. And if you lose that, a battle is truly pointless.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Order tickets for the charity launch of Albom’s new novel, “For One More Day,” at 248-433-1515 or ticketmaster.com. Wednesday’s event at the Fox Theatre features Tony Bennett, Hank Azaria and Joe Dumars. Tickets are $40 and include an autographed copy of the novel. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays and “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR-AM (760).

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