Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Fear vs. Freedom

As the election of our new President of the United States approaches, I have become discouraged. So little of the conversation is about basic human rights, freedom, and the responsibility of everyone to accept that freedom comes at a cost. What are you willing to do to have freedom?

It is one of the ironies of human history (and maybe one of the great truths of humanity) that you can't buy freedom by paying someone else to fight for it! Those waiting in the wings, greedy for the chance to take whatever you have to offer, know so little about freedom that they inevitably take it away and replace it with fear.

What are we so afraid of that we will let our own government take away our freedoms in the name of protecting the homeland? How many times have democratic governments heard this cry? How many have survived after responding to the cry?

Democracy isn't just "one person one vote". The rights of each member of a democracy reflect the belief that all are created equal. Democracy implies a tolerance of diverse perspectives, a willingness to let everyone be heard, and a mechanism for making decisions that reflects the choice of the majority. And the ultimate power of a democracy depends on each individual's commitment to fight for these rights.

What happens when fear is used to persuade people in a democracy? Being afraid, as in being afraid for one's life, as in being afraid a human bomb terrorist will be on your next train or a jet will crash into your building, or a dirty bomb will poison your community, or terrorists will invade your school and kill your children; being afraid is normal. If I really think about it, I am afraid to cross the street, I am afraid to open my door at night, I am afraid to let my children go out on their own, I am afraid of what the President, any President, will do next. Fear is good thing. It helps us to focus on potential outcomes of current decisions. Fear motivates us to think about what will happen before it happens. Our fear is successful if it keeps us from doing something that would have been a mistake.

The problem with fear being used to persuade people in a democracy is two fold. First, fear as a motivator is not bad, but choices made out of fear to avoid short term pain may not be in the best interest for long term gains. This is fear without foresight. This is the way panicked crowds and herd animals react to fear. I am reminded of herds of buffalo being stampeded over the cliffs, falling to their death out of fear for their death.

Secondly, reacting to fear is a denial of a citizen's responsibility to stand for what s/he believes. Part of the discipline of democracy is the belief that there are some rights for which its citizens are willing to fight to the death. The strength of democracy comes from the threat of such extreme action on the part of the populace. When the removal of fear is offered by politicians as a reason to empower them, the citizens have given up their most powerful weapon: their own commitment to their beliefs.

The current (George W. Bush) administration leads with fear and reaction; fear of terrorists attacking the homeland, reaction to the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center towers. We are soothed (and exploited) by our own expectation that we are entitlted to a safe world. And the Bush administration, with the greedy help of many business interests, is ready to take from us in the name of freeing us from our fears. The only way to make democracy work in the world is to keep the responsibility for freedom in the hands of the citizens. If we aren't willing to make sacrifices for that which we believe, hiring a gunslinger will only hasten our fall into tyranny.

September 21, 2004