Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Fear and the Loss of Freedom

Freedom is a little bit like virginity. You don’t just helplessly lose it like some risky financial investment in a down market. Freedom is something that you willingly surrender to somebody who‘s out to screw you, and then sometime later, down the line, you wonder what it might be like to have it back.

The travesties of the Bush Administration will be recited and debated well into the next century, and only the hindsight of history will tell us how bad it really was. Even a short list will certainly include the following: Squandering a trillion dollars of our national wealth. Failing to address problems on our southern border. Initiating an unjust and needless war. Trampling on the United States Constitution by attempting to render the Congress irrelevant. And cynically exploiting the trust of Christians and conservatives. To me, however, the most lasting damage inflicted by Bush and Cheney was this: They made us change our understanding of the word, freedom.

Every dead Marine who comes home from Iraq is eulogized with the words, “He died for our freedom.” Nothing could be further from the truth, although I completely sympathize with the need for the dead man’s family to believe this. The fact is, our freedom was never threatened by Iraq. Our freedom has never been actually threatened in a military way by any outside power since 1945. We can’t ever lose our freedom to foreign enemies by force of arms because our military is too powerful. Instead, we give it away willingly to leaders who know how to manipulate us. And Bush and Cheney are the best that there has ever been at taking what we willingly gave them.

My perspective is that of a travel writer who has spent time in 110 foreign countries. Among these countries are India, Ireland, Great Britain, Spain, Indonesia, and several of the breakaway republics that were formally part of the Soviet Union. All of these nations have one thing in common: They have experienced repeated attacks of terrorism that were, collectively, far worse than 9/11. In the case of India and Indonesia, they have been fighting militant Islamic extremism for over half a century, with their loss of life counted in the tens of thousands. All of these terrorist-target countries have something else in common. None of their populations went insane with fear, surrendering much of their own freedom to their own governments. None of their governing bodies have initiated anything like our Patriot Act and our Homeland Security Department. The terrorists repeatedly inflicted death and destruction, but the people and the governments of these countries never “freaked out” like we did in the United States.

Why not? Are the foreign populations idiotic? Are their governments reckless and uncaring about the people’s safety? Are Americans cowards? The answer to all of these questions is, “No.” The difference is this. For one thing, their leaders didn’t use the opportunity to seize additional power in a time of peril. But the deeper reason is that these terrorist-target countries have a certain wisdom which is lacking in America. They understand that fundamental Islam seeks to use jihad to make target populations philosophically surrender intellectual freedom and embrace Islam, and you don’t counter that threat by simply surrendering your freedom to an alternate threat and embracing a different power that also seeks to dominate. It is useless for us to throw our Marines into battle against an Islamic jihad while, at the same time, we knuckle under to things like the Patriot Act without so much as a whimper. The Islamic terrorists know that the Bush Administration will be out of power in 2009, but now they also know that the American people will willingly give away personal freedom if sufficiently intimidated. And God knows, Americans are easily intimidated. George W. Bush gave them that example, and in doing so he altered our notion of what freedom really is. That’s his tragic legacy.

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