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.

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