Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Liberty's Price

We are so far removed from the original struggle to found the United States, so distant from the events that led to its creation, that it is probably very hard for most of us to imagine what it was like to live in Colonial America. We can no more wrap our heads around the idea of being ruled by a foreign power, than we can understand the motivations of those who perpetrated September 11Th. The idea that at one time, the people of America were subjects of Great Britain, subject to the whims of its king and unrepresented in Parliament, seems almost whimsical now.

It was not so in 1775.

The Founding Fathers fought a protracted, costly, and often contentious war to pry the United States free from the grip of Britain. In doing so, they knew that the end result would have to be a nation, conceived in freedom and liberty, that would have to do anything within its power to ensure that its citizens would never again fall under the thrall of another sovereign nation, nor be subjugated by their own government. The Bill of Rights was the foundation upon which the new nation was laid. It said the government would have no right to limit the freedom to speak, the freedom to worship, or the freedom of the press to report on how the country was being run. It said the government could not simply take what belonged to its citizens, nor charge them with crimes without some form of due process, and that people had the right to know what they were being accused of, and by whom. They also made sure that the government would not make them surrender their arms, to ensure the ability of the nation to raise martial forces in time of need and to make sure that the citizenry could resist, should the government turn repressive.

While it can be said that these precepts were earth-shaking in the 18Th Century, the founders knew that no half measures would do. They tried to anticipate what it would take to hold a nation of such disparate heritage together over generations, and made sure that the Constitution could be amended to adapt to change. They made assumptions about the course of history to come, hoping to ensure that the foundation remained solid long after they were gone. If our current place in the world is any indication, this new birth of freedom and the growing pains that came after, led to a nation that is strong, proud, and even more diverse than the founders could have imagined.

But there was a cost inherent to the liberty thus created.

That the government ceded the right to limit the freedom to speak, meant that in addition to the liberation of being able to criticize people, institutions, and even the government itself, in a manner which fostered public debate, created mutual understanding, and promoted growth, groups with less than admirable aims would have the right to stand upon their soapboxes and spew forth venom and vitriol. Sanity, reason, and logic would have to share the field with ignorance, intransigence, and intolerance. Any reasonable person would have to face the possibility of being set upon by howling mobs of the narrow-minded.

It could be no other way.

The founders had seen, first-hand, how a totalitarian regime would do whatever it took to suppress even mild dissent. They knew that for there to be true freedom, the good would have to be taken with the bad. One suspects they hoped, beyond hope, that as the nation grew, the bond of community would overwhelm any opposition. In essence, they were counting on, as Lincoln put it, "the better angles of our nature" to naturally suppress dissent. Freedom and liberty would do a better job reigning in the destructive tendencies of some, than a heavy-handed government.

They were eternal optimists.

The history of our country has seen the collection and distribution of disturbing ideologies, ideologies that have no basis in fact or reason, but that persist because they play to people's fears. Fear is a powerful motivator -- it is built in to us as a defense mechanism, causing us to flee if we can and fight if we cannot flee. Fear can be harnessed, used to fuel intolerance, cruelty, hypocrisy, and greed. Fear can be turned into a weapon, and a justification.

And so, on June 10Th, 2009, the dream of a nation conceived in liberty and freedom was weakened, by the act of a anti-Semitic, racist, hate-monger, who, for no reason we can fathom, decided to attack a memorial to an event, the likes of which the world did not know until the 20Th Century, an event he denied even happened. He turned a sick, twisted, misguided ideology into action, fear-inducing, hate-spreading action. Because of this, a decent man, a man paid to maintain peace and order and to protect the lives of others, paid the ultimate price, in laying down his life to stop a madman before he could kill others. A family has been deprived of a father. Parents have been deprived of a son.

We are outraged. We are stunned, both by the act itself, but more importantly, by the ideology that spawned it. We want retribution. We want the flaming sword of justice to swoop down from the heavens, and smite these hate-filled animals. We want to strip away their freedom, forfeit their lives, as payment for their ignorance. We want them dead.

It cannot be that way. The founders knew this.

If we are to honor our country, if we are to honor the memory of every person who has died, in any way, to sustain our freedom, then we cannot devolve to the level of such extremists. We have rule of law in this country, and we must use it, and wisely, to fight these hate-mongers at every turn. We must show that the vast bulk of the citizenry in the United States rejects fear and hatred, rejects anti-Semitism and racism, rejects anything that is contrary to the greater good. They must be repudiated, their views torn down, the truth shouted from every rooftop. We must drown their ideology of hate with the weight of decency and law. We must take this moment, take this opportunity afforded us by this tragedy, and turn it into action. All free Americans, all good citizens, must rise as one and say "Enough!" to the forces that would divide us and make us afraid of each other. We must make it clear to the forces of intolerance, that America may grant them the freedom to espouse their views, but we do not grant them the power to control us with fear.

Let us put a fallen hero in our thoughts, put his murderer behind bars, and put those who would lionize such a coward on notice, that their days of intolerance are numbered.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Four Words

You shall not kill.

Now, you may take those words at face value, and if you do, their intent is pretty obvious. Killing, it would seem, is wrong.

Mind you, there is not a lot of specificity there. Kill what, precisely? Other people? Animals? Microbes?

Without context, as powerful as the words are, we are left to wonder about their true intent. When placed in the context from which they sprang, the Ten Commandments, there is much better clarity. The Ten Commandments were a series of rules to live by, the codifying of life in terms all could understand and recognize. They told you what to do and what not to do to be seen as good in the eyes of the Old Testament God.

And these 4 words makes sense, even out of that context.

Whatever your belief system, there seems to be a fundamental right to be alive. You are here, brought into this world, raised, part of human society, and it seems perfectly natural for you to stay that way. More to the point, given that we are all human in this society, it seems reasonable to assume that if you have the right to be alive, so do your fellow humans. Taken further, it is an unforgivable breach for one human being to deprive another human being of their life, an asset that cannot be restored, once taken.

What seems obvious, right, and logical to one person, or even group of people, does not always translate. Throughout time, it has always been easier to simply deprive others of their life in order to get what you want. Someone has land you want: you kill them. Someone is in love with a woman you desire: you kill them. Your country is in a shambles and those people are to blame: let us kill them. They do not look like we do: kill them. They do not believe what we do. 

Kill them.

Miraculously, human society still exists, despite the ever-increasing conflicts we pursue, on the ever-increasing scales we pursue them. And where large portions of human society have not managed to wipe other large portions out, there are the small, daily skirmishes, chalked up to daily survival, or worse, the defense of a "way of life."

You shall not kill.

For all the power of those 4 words, they are easily enough ignored when desired. Even the most devout can find a justification for murdering someone, if they try hard enough. Perhaps it is easy to do, because they know they can ask for absolution, a kind of "get out of jail free card" for the soul. Perhaps they are convinced that it is the hand of God that made them do it, and that places them beyond the grip of mortal, human justice. Perhaps they need no more justification than "I can do it, so I will." They do not fear degradation, retribution, or the judgment of other humans, cocooned in a shell of their belief, as unbreakable as their personal faith.

So, it is easy enough for them to justify their actions to themselves, if no one else. Yet we know, there are those who believe as they do, who see these actions, not as deplorable or reprehensible, but as justified, on some loose moral ground. They are driven by a desire to see everyone believe as they do. They are frustrated that their will is not enforced. They see it as their "right" to make the world in their own image. Reason, appeals to sanity, logic... these do not sway them. Their belief is their sword and their shield, and backed by nothing more, they would trample others who stand in their way, all the while hiding behind the protections granted them by their country.

Death begets death. They who live by the sword, die by the sword.

And those who would take up arms to enforce their point of view, or revel in a blow struck for their beliefs, can rest peacefully in their bed, because nowhere will others who oppose them plan the same fate for them. They will not have to worry about being brutally murdered to prove a point.

Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.