A reflection on American freedom for the July 4th holiday
Much of the content of this post is from my 47th letter to President George W. Bush, dated July 17, 2002. Eleven years later, it seems that the opportunities of which I then wrote have passed from that President to another. Still, this piece expresses something of my patriotism—a patriotism that runs deeper than most who know me imagine.
Ever since the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001 and the state of war that President Bush declared, I notice that the Fourth of July has been celebrated with heightened emphasis. More flags fly, more fireworks flower, and everything considered American and patriotic is trumpeted to the nth degree. This July 4th holiday gives me an opportunity to frame hard-won freedoms beyond typical images and reflect on the weight of freedom’s future.
WHO HATES FREEDOM? For as many times as I have heard it declared that the primary reason terrorists targeted America is that "they hate our freedom," I have been completely baffled by it. I just don’t think it is our freedom that anyone hates. They may loathe our unqualified support for Israel amid Palestinian oppression, they may resent our apparent carelessness in the face of their poverty, they may hate our overwhelming military and economic power, they may completely deplore the more promiscuous and paraded lifestyles of the West that offend Islamic (and, quite frankly, basic Jewish and Christian) sensitivities, but they don’t hate the freedom we enjoy. They may hate what we have done in and with our freedom, but I don’t think they hate freedom.
FEET VOTE FOR FREEDOM. Freedom is desired by all. People vote with their feet for freedom—a freedom that releases the heart, encourages community, and fans the flame of individual growth and opportunity. Across generations, refugees and immigrants seeking freedom have flocked to America, clinging to the image of the Statue of Liberty. And, in our best moments of freedom, we have opened our doors and welcomed in freedom seekers. This is how most of our ancestors came to America. Our tightened borders are still porous and many slip through. As they acclimate and contribute, over time we usually grandfather in even these "illegal" aliens as fellow citizens.
WILLING TO FACE DOWN OUR OWN DEMONS. In our best moments, America has grappled with the challenge of extending the promise of freedom to all of its own citizens. Self-evident truths have not always been treated as such. It has taken prophets and protesters and martyrs to make freedom begin to ring for many of our own citizens. Our own bigotry, prejudice, greed, and fears have divided us and at times cast a long and shameful shadow over American freedom. It is not just an enemy without that we have had to face down, but demons within. Our willingness to do this makes our freedom all the more attractive to those who have lived without it.
SOMETHING OF A GRAND DREAM. I think it is clear that American independence and patriotism in defense of democracy is something that all but a twisted handful of people in the world salute. Few have been able to pull off and hold together what America has accomplished. America, even now, is something of a grand dream of freedom and democracy at so many levels it is impossible to separate them and still see the vision.
HOW WE USE OUR FREEDOM MATTERS. It is not freedom that is despised. It is our weighty and sometimes insensitive exercise of freedom that is despised, it seems to me. In light of this, we should carefully consider how, as the world’s largest and dominant democracy, we use our freedom at home and abroad. We could begin by ceasing to dismissively label terrorists and millions of people who harbor resentment toward America as merely “freedom haters.”
DRAIN AWAY SOURCES OF RESENTMENT. As America has repeatedly searched its own soul to extend fairness and freedom to its own disenfranchised residents, let us search our hearts once again. Let us think through to the legitimate sources of pain, anger, and resentment that have led to levels of angst that continue to foment terrorism. And let us consider what we can do to drain away such anger by policies and actions that befit the richest, most free, democracy-loving nation in the world. Let us struggle to cultivate, again, a freedom that is noted for character, understanding, fairness, and compassion.
John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA