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Freedom should be free

Published: August 27, 2010
Section: Opinions


George W. Bush once said “the wisest use of American strength is to advance freedom.”

Despite being bombarded with the word “freedom” ever since I began reading newspapers, I have only recently thought about how ludicrous it is to use that word to justify acts of war.

During the past nine years, the United States, the “leader of the free world,” has engaged in operations with appealing titles such as Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Not only do they make us feel self-righteous and just, they help silence criticism because no one wants to argue against liberty and human rights. What this freedom actually means, though, remains unclear. One could argue, as the United States does, that our international missions aim to secure freedom and democracy where it doesn’t exist.

But is it freedom if a foreign power invades, asserts control, and stages an election? If we support the idea of a free market and Iraq just so happens to have oil, what kind of freedom are we actually seeking, and for whom?

The goal of freedom has become a deceptively nasty way of masking both the horrors of war and dangerous policies at home. When our government constantly reminds the American people that our troops are “fighting for your freedom,” it becomes much easier to justify unilateral military action, invasions, civilian deaths, weapons of mass destruction and the deaths of the poor soldiers themselves.

First, the government convinces us that we want this vague and undefined freedom; then, it convinces us that the best way to achieve it is by waging war against our enemies abroad, but also against our civil liberties at home. Astoundingly, Americans can accept legislation like the PATRIOT Act or show support for racial profiling in the name of freedom, even though both directly infringe upon our constitutional rights. The government’s motive for using those kinds of terms is obvious, of course. It’s much easier to drum up support for any policy as long as the voting public believes it is just, free and American.

The unbelievable part is how incredibly detached some people have become from the true meanings of the words they casually throw around. It is completely commonplace to see conservatives protesting against gay marriage, government health care and the idea of a Muslim president, while they are simultaneously supporting the Iraq War, the use of corporate money in elections and Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant laws, all in the name of freedom.

People who use that word to back up their political positions tend to implicitly mean that freedom is good, but only as long as they are personally OK with its usage. That means they celebrate religious freedom for Christians, but denounce Muslims’ rights to build mosques; support freedom of political association, but vilify “socialists;” push for free markets, but seek to prevent free movement of labor across borders; glorify personal freedom, but attempt to limit the rights of women to get abortions, gays to get married or workers to join unions. That kind of “freedom” means nothing, and yet it has become a justification for much of our national and foreign policy.

After 9/11, President George W. Bush famously asked the question, “Why do [the terrorists] hate us?” His answer? “…Because they hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and disagree with each other.” No, Mr. Bush, terrorists do not hate us for our supposed freedom.

They hate us because of the disrespect, cruelty and indifference we’ve shown for so many years in the Middle East. They hate us for failing to withdraw troops from Saudi Arabia, the holiest of Muslim countries, after the Gulf War; for asserting a unilateral right to intervention; for pursuing harsh sanctions against Iraq that directly led to the starvation of thousands of children; for allowing Palestinians to suffer in the name of support for Israel; for our discriminatory treatment of Muslims in our own country and for attempting to police the world when there is no one to police us. Drumming up support for the war by preying on the public’s sympathy for freedom distorts political will and weakens the ability of the public to express a clear and informed opinion, especially about our foreign policy. After years of struggles, failures and deaths in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we appear to be no better off, either abroad or at home, for our government’s attempt to justify its undemocratic, and certainly not free, approach to war.

We would at least be better off if we began to question the word freedom, which we hear so often without really hearing it at all. Then maybe we would start to wonder if war makes the American people more free or less free, or if the families of dead civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan feel more free or less free, or if the post-9/11 world regards the United States as more free or less free. If we think more about this term that can mean so much, but also nothing at all, we might reach a better definition worthy of respect.