What it Means to be Free
Article ID: 4567
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 5,351
Times Read: 6,131
Posted: July 1st. 2002
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Inpendence Day is coming up this week in the good old U.S. of A. and I'm sure that we'll all be treated to the usual red, white-and-blue editorial fanfare from the media. Since 9/11, freedom has taken on a whole new meaning in the minds of many Americans. As we recall with misty-eyed nostalgia the fight for our national independence, we'll wave our flags, grill up our nitrate soaked hot dogs and maybe sing a patriotic song or two in the bargain. Just like we do every year. But patriotism has an edgier quality to it these days than it used to. A sort of hopeful desperation creeps into any conversation on the merits and pitfalls of a free society. It seems almost as if we are trying to convince ourselves that we are still the same free people that we were before that day in September. And it just doesn't seem to be working all that well.
What is freedom? Better minds than mine have debated and orated and philosophized over what 'freedom' really means. Freedom is a very contextual word. There is personal freedom, political freedom, religious freedom and market freedom. A society or a government looks at the role of freedom and then decides just how much and how little it needs to allow or to regulate in order to keep things from falling apart. Some rules and regulations are needed to keep absolute freedoms from turning into absolute anarchy. Some rules and laws are good. If they keep people from tearing down my street at 75 miles an hour and running over my children and the cats in the process, I, too, would be content enough to drive at 35 miles an hour and get home in one piece if a few minutes later. A good law also allows for exceptions based upon some circumstances. An ambulance or police vehicle can exceed the speed limits for cases of emergency and if you are on the way to the hospital with someone who is bleeding all over the upholstery in your new Navigator, you'll probably get cut the same kind of deal.
We are generally happy with most rules and regulations if they make sense. Because there always may be some people who want to drive 75 miles an hour anywhere and everywhere and too bad for you if you happen to be in their way, traffic laws make sense to most people. Laws and regulations establish boundaries on behavior and if they are just laws, few will argue the desirability of them in the long run and in the big picture. So your absolute freedom to drive your car anywhere that you might like to go is curtailed by stop signs and traffic lights and speed limits and the issuance of a license and in dozens of other regulated little ways. You are still 'free' to break those laws, of course, if you are willing to pay the fine or face the other consequences when you are caught.
Did you ever stop to think about how many laws have been written specifically to insure our safety? Traffic laws, certainly, but there are environmental hazard protection laws, percentage of orange juice in your fruit drink disclosure laws, alcohol drinking laws and child protection laws. The list goes on and on. Concerns for public and private safety make up a large bulk of the laws that have been passed. And if they indeed help keep us safe from too much sugar and not enough juice, well then, most of us will be happy with a bit more nutritional content to start off our morning. We have come to depend on safety laws. Perhaps we have come to depend on safety laws too much. Perhaps we have been lulled and regulate enough 'for own safety' that we really believe that if a law is designed to keep us safe that it always has to be considered as a good law. And that it will, indeed, keep us safe. Even if it means that we can't be free.
There is always a trade-off between freedom and safety. Since 9/11, the trade-off has become much more visible. I think most Americans will notice some extra police on duty at the local Fourth of July celebrations this year and feel a bit more secure for it. We are adjusting to increased checkpoints at airports and going through metal detectors at many government and public buildings. What we are not used to is the curtailment of speech and of the right to assemble and to read the books of our choice without someone jotting those titles down in an F.B.I. notebook. I hope that we never get used to that. But I'm not all that encouraged. Most people in this country have shown a great willingness to give up some personal freedoms-like privacy and the right to open dissent- for the solace of feeling safe. "Trust us", these new laws and regulations whisper, "and we'll keep you safe. Look at what we've already done for you in the orange drink department."
It is perhaps poignantly ironic that all these new safety laws and regulations and powers under the sadly named 'Patriot Act' will be so visible come the Fourth of July. For what we will be celebrating on that day will not be the comfort of safety, but the desire for freedom. The War of Independence was not fought from behind computer screens, but on the rocky hills and in ice packed valleys of the American landscape. It was not fought in lands far away, but right here in New York and Pennsylvania. And those who fought the war, those who lost battle after battle after battle, felt neither safe nor secure. Sure, they fought the war to bring safety and security to the American colonies. But it was not safety that was the rallying cry which caused men to leave their farms to join up or to risk all that they owned and loved: It was freedom. They loved safety and security as all men and women of conscience will do. But they loved freedom more.
These were not rebellious men and women, our colonial Fathers and Mothers. They had to be cajoled, inspired and convinced that freedom was a more important value than was security. And after the war was over, they had to be cajoled, inspired and convinced that a free republic, of, for and by the people, was a worthy experiment in government. What they knew was the safety and security, if not the freedom, of the European monarchies, the protection of the King's Army/Navy, rule by the aristocratic classes and the persuasive power of the blessing- or the threat of excommunication- of the all-sovereign Church. They had to be convinced that a republic that allowed for freedom of expression, freedom of religion, of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness could work. But they were convinced. If not convinced that it actually would work, at least they were convinced that it was worth the attempt. Freedom did not come easily. But how easily it can be given up.
"Independent will is our capacity to act. It gives us the power to transcend our paradigms, to swim upstream, to rewrite our scripts, to act based on principle rather than reacting based on emotion or circumstance." So writes Steven R. Covey in his book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. More than two centuries separate Mr. Covey and his words from those of the American heroes and heroines whose lives and accomplishments we will celebrate this week. Yet, we can still hear the echo of Thomas Jefferson as he said in his 1st inaugural address in 1801, "Still one thing more, fellow citizens - a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government. "
The potential trade-off between safety and freedom is always there. It is always addressed in some manner if the appeal is to one of genuine liberty and not to hedonistic anarchy. Freedom without safety is a harsh and violent landscape and safety without freedom is naught but a gilded cage. Any choices to made on the matter of how much security or how much liberty our nation should allow or regulate should never be presented as a matter of either or. That's not a choice; that's an ultimatum. Freedom and security can and must always walk hand in hand. Our choice then - when a choice must be made - is simply that of deciding which one of these that we value the most.
When real American patriots chose freedom over security two hundred years ago, they gave us something to celebrate this week. When Mr. Jefferson stated, "A society that will trade a little order for a little freedom will lose both, and deserve neither,' he made his choice perfectly clear. There are indeed times in the course of events when such choices must be made.
Co-Founder - The Witches' Voice
Monday, July 1st., 2002
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