6 Ways National Service in the United States Can Revitalize Individual Rights and a Civil Society

Despite a controversial election, there are areas for common ground that will help us all move forward together. The United States still embodies many aspects of a free society. But we must rededicate ourselves to justice and domestic tranquility through common defense. It is our duty to revive our devotion to these Constitutional principles by re-establishing universal national service for our citizens: to protect them, to empower them, to bring them together.

National service has a broader meaning than military service. The threats of domestic terrorism and gun violence both suggest a defense-trained citizenry has value. It is distinct from military service, because the intention is self-protection not aggression. In the digital realm, it means better education about digital risks posed to people and the nation via the internet.

We can commit time to domestic security, rebuilding bridges, clean water and refurbishing or volunteering in schools falling behind. Here are a few ways universal service may help:

1. Fairness

Military service was eliminated to end the Vietnam War, but it has eliminated a basic citizen responsibility. We can reinstate it so that people objecting may contribute in a different way, rather than opt out. Equality in society comes with both rights and responsibilities. Right now, the wealthy and privileged are less likely to serve or sacrifice. When the burden of service is borne by all, it reinforces our sense of fairness and equality expected under the law and in society.

2. Bring people from different backgrounds together

We increasingly isolate ourselves from people who are different, in life and online. Military service helped pave the way for equal rights and tolerance based upon ethnicity, faith, gender and sexual preference. By working together on common goals, citizens with very different beliefs and backgrounds are more likely to humanize, not demonize, each other. More tolerance means more free speech, for people of all political opinions. How can you expect others to tolerance of differing opinions or people if we don’t agree to come together to support our country?

3. Empower people

Train us all in self-protection physically, digitally and politically. When people have skills to deal with possible violence, they are less prone to fear-driven decisions because there is some sense of control. As part of service, some mandatory training would help improve our ability to deal with the risk of violence, cyber-threats and competing opinions on solving political problems. For those not choosing military service, police can educate/train citizens locally, bringing communities closer together, potentially lowering both crime and the excessive use of force against citizens.

4. Improve safety in the community and schools

Aging infrastructure needs repair. Give citizens the opportunity to contribute to make our roads and schools safer and cleaner. We need something positive to work on together; it will improve both our living environment and our outlook. If we can lessen distress and hopelessness, anger and fear will lessen. For those not willing to serve in a military role, there can be concrete, alternative opportunities to contribute.

5. Increase the peace

More Americans die domestically from guns than in military conflict, but there remains a real risk of terrorism. Instead of isolating some Americans as possible threats, train us to use weapons and to identify and disarm shooters may empower them to lessen the violence. Israel and Switzerland have low gun violence rates with universal military service. The best tactic may be teaching our children and ourselves how to bear arms since we have democratized violence, but not self-defense.

6. Protect civil liberties and civil society

Citizens serving in a civil defense corps can unite us, making us more civil and willing to listen to each other. Our current intolerance of differing opinions fuels the violence and erodes free speech. Empowered citizens that better understand each other are better able to address the problems we face together without weakening the fabric of the democratic society we espouse.

This presidential election has challenged political conventional wisdom and gives us an opportunity to revive an important tool for social cohesion. We can renew our commitment to a civil society by the people, for the people, by engaging the people.

National service succeeds best when all Americans participate. Rather than see it as a sacrifice, national service is an opportunity for education, revitalizing our communities and our republic. If we do not rebalance individual rights with civic responsibility, can we expect the United States to keep moving toward that more perfect Union?

I am willing to serve. Are you?