Note: This essay was first written in the days following
the domestic terrorist bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
We all need to spend some time considering how best to defend liberty and freedom, and what unites us as a nation concerned with democratic values. In doing so, we need to commit to a process that respects civil liberties, and civil rights, and civil discourse.
My Dad wouldn’t talk with me about World War II except to say it was brutal and bloody and that he lost many friends. So when he swapped war stories in the basement with his drinking buddies, I would sit in the dark at the top of the stairs and listen.
I learned how his hands and feet had been frostbitten during the Battle of the Bulge, and that one of his Bronze Star citations was for taking out a Nazi machine gun nest. He thought the Germans were decent people whose big mistake was not standing up to the thugs like the Brownshirts who broke the windows of Jewish-owned stores on Kristalnacht. As I remembered this, I watched mountains of broken glass being swept up in Oklahoma City as the death count rose.
News of the bombing reached our family on vacation in coastal Georgia. I had been writing about the historic and social roots of the militia movement and, after visiting a museum preserving a former rice plantation, had talked with my son about how the Ku Klux Klan had formed as a militia during the economic and cultural turmoil following the Civil War. I had little doubt that the blast was somehow linked to the armed militia movement.
Reports of the carnage at the Oklahoma City federal building, the selfless efforts of rescue crews, and the horror of even some militia members, mingled eerily with stories commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe and the 20th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. I found history lessons connecting these events in an old brass-bound wooden chest, inherited after we buried my Dad at Arlington Cemetery 20 years ago. Inside were brittle photos of a young lieutenant, a dried flower sent to my Mom from “somewhere in Belgium,” crumbling newspaper clippings on the fighting near Bastogne, and a leather case filled with war medals.
Like many White Christians in the late 1950s, Dad held stereotyped views about Blacks and Jews. His actions spoke differently, though, and were the durable lesson. When neighbors in Hackensack, New Jersey, told him that our town was not ready for the Little League team he coached–with a Black player, a Jewish player, and a Jewish assistant coach–Dad simply said he had picked the best, and shut the door. He told me he had seen Jews and Blacks die along with everyone else fighting the Nazis; then he pointedly invited the entire team and their families to our yard for a very public picnic. Later, the stones crashing through our windows at night merely hardened his resolve.
In the 1960s we moved up the commuter rail line to Hillsdale, New Jersey. My brother went to military school and played in the marching band. In college he was sports editor of the campus newspaper and joined ROTC. After graduation he shipped out to fight in Vietnam. I went to church-basement coffee houses and marched with the civil rights movement. In college I edited the campus newspaper and joined the anti-war movement. After the killings at Kent State and Jackson State in 1970, I editorialized in favor of a student strike.
The next year, after a commemoration of Kent and Jackson, a professor sent me his Korean war medals as an act of protest against our government’s policies. He felt a need to stand up, and his conscience told him that “it is all of us that are guilty–we who sit there and do nothing.” We sent the newspaper with a story about the medals to the printers, then I sat up all night trying to unravel conflicting emotions over family expectations, my hope for my brother’s safe return from war, career plans, and what my personal moral obligations demanded of me, given my views about peace and social justice. When morning came, I quietly joined other anti-war protestors and engaged in my first act of non-violent civil disobedience at a federal building near Denver.
My Dad was Grand Marshall of Hillsdale’s Memorial Day parade. When a tiny peace group in the early 1970s asked to participate, it created a furor. Dad was a lifelong Republican, pro-war, and anti-communist, and his idea of America came right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. He told the town officials that if the peace marchers followed the rules, they were entitled to march. And they did. Mom told me he came home from the debate shaking his head, asking how people could forget those who gave their lives to defend such rights.
Reunited as a family one Thanksgiving, we all toasted my brother’s safe return from Vietnam with the crystal wine glasses my father brought back from Germany. It was a mirrored tableau of Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want,” a painting of a family sharing abundant food. The “Four Freedoms” series appeared as Saturday Evening Post covers during World War II; and as corny and steeped in stereotyping as they were, the theme helped unify and rally our nation at a time of crisis. Sure, politicians had other more cynical and pragmatic justifications for the war, but most Americans were willing to fight because they believed in the four freedoms.
Years later, battling cancer, my Dad was determined to don his uniform one last time on Memorial Day. As I helped him dress, I asked him about the war. His only reply was to hand me one of his medals. Inscribed on the back were the words “Freedom from Fear and Want. Freedom of Speech, and Religion.” The four freedoms. My Dad fought fascism to defend these freedoms, not just for himself, but for people of different religions and races, people he disagreed with. . .even people he was prejudiced against.
Today, the four freedoms that millions fought to defend are under attack–in part because we forget why people fought World War II, we deny what led to the Holocaust, we fail to live up to the promise of the civil rights movement, and we refuse to heal the wounds of the Vietnam War era.
Freedom of speech needs to be defended because democracy depends on a public dialogue to build informed consent. This is impossible when the public conversation–from armed militia members to talk-show hosts to mainstream politicians–is typified by shouting, falsehoods, and scapegoating. The Nazi death camps proved that hateful speech linked to conspiracy myths can lead to violence and murder. The solution is not censorship, but citizenship–people need to stand up and speak out in public against the bigots and bullies. Democracy works. The formula for democracy is straightforward: over time, the majority of people, given enough accurate information, and access to a free and open debate, reach the right decisions to preserve liberty. Thus democracy depends on ensuring freedom of speech.
Freedom from fear is manipulated by those demanding laws that would undermine freedom of speech. The same agencies that spied on the civil rights and anti-war movements are again peddling the false notion that widespread infiltration of social movements is effective in stopping terrorism. Meanwhile, demagogues fan the flames of fear to urge passage of even more authoritarian crime control measures–while doing little to find real societal solutions that would bring freedom from fear to crime-ridden communities.
Freedom of religion is twisted by those seeking to make their private religious views into laws governing the public. But it is also abused by liberal critics who patronize sincere religious belief as ignorance, and litter the landscape with hysterical and divisive direct mail caricaturing all religious conservatives as zealots. Freedom of religion means we must have a serious debate on the issues with our devout neighbors, while condemning the theocrats who claim to speak for God as they pursue secular political goals.
Freedom from want has been shoved aside in a mean-spirited drive to punish the hungry, the poor, the children, the elderly, the disabled, the infirm, the homeless, the disenfranchised.
For many in our country, the four freedoms remain only a dream, but at least in 1945 it was a dream worth fighting for. How many of us today are willing to stop shouting and just talk with each other about how best our nation can defend the four freedoms?