Practicing freedom

February 29, 2004|By Raymond Daniel Burke

THERE WAS MUCH talk after Sept. 11, 2001, of the effort and commitment that we would all have to devote to the war that had to be waged to rid our world of the evil of terrorism.

It would be a long and demanding conflict that would call upon the better parts of our nature -- our generosity of spirit, our sense of community, our acceptance of the duties required by our status as a free people, our faith in the concepts of liberty and equality that gave birth to the nation that we now steward. It was a call that demanded action and sacrifice.

There was sense then that in many ways, the horrors that had been so devastatingly thrust upon us offered an opportunity for our renewal as a people. It reminded us of the majestic ideals of democracy and the sublime elegance of all of us participating in it. It made us a people mindful of the blessings bestowed on us by our freedom, of the sacrifices of generations before us and of the symbol of hope and light that we remain to all peoples of the world.

As a forest renews from the ashes of a fire, the burned and decimated remains of those airliner explosions offered fertile ground for a rebirth of the American spirit. A spirit in which we would join together and bear whatever burdens that might be demanded to ensure that mad violence cannot diminish the vigor of liberty, and that our children can be nurtured in the richness of freedom without fear. In service to our country and the ideals that give it meaning, we would not only enjoy the spoils of victory over an evil foe, but we would also savor the enrichment of having found our purpose as a people and a generation.

One meaningful way of facing down an enemy of freedom is to practice freedom with passion and exuberance. That means embracing the responsibilities of maintaining freedom, which requires a population that is informed and engaged in the daily challenge of administering a republic. Yet, despite the post-9/11 rhetoric, we seem to have left everything to be done by the government.

A true American war on terror conjures up visions of an America challenged, not coddled, by its leaders. Yet coddled we have been.

We have not been enlisted in any meaningful effort in a war on terror. We have not been called to community service so that government resources can be devoted more effectively to our security. We have not been asked to find ways to make freedom ring so loudly in our communities that there can be no mistake about its continued vitality. But for coping with lines at airports, we have not been asked to significantly disturb our routines in any way. We have not been enlisted in any meaningful effort to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, the money from which sometimes finds its way to terrorist organizations.

It seems unfathomable that our nation could undertake the sobering and arduous effort of ridding the world of terrorism -- of remaking the thinking and culture of much of the globe -- without calling on its people for some sacrifice.

In a republic, the government is a servant. The people are the master. Yet we freely abdicate the master's responsibilities in exchange for the comfort of our insulated lives. And so the government creates more bureaucracy in the name of security, and we pay the cost.

Government passes laws that compromise fundamental civil rights and run contrary to basic principles of our freedom, and we acquiesce in quiet deference to government's judgment. And government chooses to pursue a war in Iraq of highly debatable consequence to the elimination of terrorism or the improvement of our national security, and we accept the enormous cost, in dollars and lives, because, our government advises, we are too far in to do anything else.

There surely has been American sacrifice in Iraq. The military families have sacrificed mightily. Many Americans have given their lives. More still have been maimed and crippled. Still more endure the horrible burdens of life in the field in a war without rules. Yet they serve, and we honor their service and hope it is for good. And then we turn back to the uninterrupted lives that our government encourages us to pursue so that we offer little interference with its agenda.

The murderers who attacked us did not attack our government. They attacked the idea of a government of the people. If we win our security but lose the idea because we fail to practice it with devotion, we will hand victory to the enemy. Patriotism is not waving the flag while others serve. It is living and embracing the precepts that the flag embodies.

We need to remember those things that were attacked Sept. 11 and purposefully exercise them to the fullest. Our government won't ask that of us. We need to ask it of ourselves.

Raymond Daniel Burke is an attorney at a Baltimore law firm.

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