Return to Home
  Freedom Line





The Risks of Liberty

By Devon Munro

It was a beautiful day as I sat in my office in central Virginia and listened to the news reports recycling the same bits of information, listened to reporters grilling our government for the sensitive details of our military plans so they could proudly present them to the entire world. I turned towards the screen only when it showed pictures of the rubble again. All day long, as the day before, no survivors were recovered.

As I tried to do my mundane legal work, rescue workers struggled to keep their footing on the jagged wreckage of the World Trade Center. Military personnel searched for the bodies of patriots in a gaping hole in the Pentagon. Throughout the country, in thousands of other homes, wives, husbands, sons and daughters broke into uncontrollable tears again, as they had a thousand times in the last week. Each morning as they awake now, the first thing they face is the incomprehensibly painful, internal clash between the finality of death and the persistence of love, a daily and incessant struggle.

On September 11th, I had turned on the television just after the second plane collided with the second tower. Cringing at the reports of people jumping from the windows to escape the burning pain of fire, I remembered the fourth grade. How scary it was, as a child on my first visit to the top of the World Trade Center, to look down on the miniature city over 1000 feet below. Imagine falling. Now, imagine falling. Everyone has found his or her own experience within the most incredible crime ever perpetrated upon the United States, and has shared in those of others.

Like most Americans during these days of national resuscitation, I believe all who work through the exhaustion and increasingly hopeless routine of search and recovery at the attack sites are heroes, and I pray for their continued dedication and safety. Yet, also like most Americans, I would gladly tag in right now, and step into the ring at Ground Zero, rolling up my sleeves and forcing in a breath of the acrid, smoking air with an inexplicable hope that 6,000 people will be searching for my hand as the next stone is removed. I am angry that I cannot do more than give blood and money. I am angry that I cannot possess the ubiquitous knowledge of God and deliver to the FBI a list of all those responsible for the attacks scribbled neatly on a piece of notebook paper. I am angry that I cannot turn back time and make the whole event just another boring Tuesday.

Now, like others who feel spiritually connected to this amazing country, I begin to recover my own senses and reexamine my perspective.

Familiar questions assume a much greater urgency now. They arise from the instincts and observations I have after twenty-seven years of life as an American. I find myself staring at the audacity of the terrorism, and I want to grab every American citizen by the shoulders and shake him into awareness of what was, what is, what should be. In frustration, I ask myself: How can I give every single American child the vision necessary to appreciate that he lives in the greatest country in the history of the modern world, the only true pinnacle of democracy, the most valuable political experiment, the superlative experience of individual and societal freedom? How then can I make America aware of the real responsibilities that accompany the privilege of being an American citizen, and the necessity for a renewed attention to preserving her liberty?

On September 11th, nineteen terrorists deliberately committed suicide to achieve a dramatic act of violence with the obvious and singular goal of undermining America’s privilege, its strength, its liberty. Ironically, they calculated their diabolical plan with an energy and dedication that most of us never even apply to achieving our positive dreams. If Americans of my generation think about the motivations of such men, they are confused. Most of us are increasingly unaware of the world beyond our shores, let alone the history behind the subjective belief of certain Islamic militants that terrorism is a legitimate theme of political expression. We have no idea where these people come from, how they live, breathe, and drink their own propaganda the way that heroin addicts return to the needle every day, increasing in intensity as their separation from reality grows.

Despite this, the great irony is that Osama bin Laden understands more about why the United States is so special than most American citizens. He and his minions recognize the emotional weak spots of America as they simultaneously fear its incredible strengths, and this is the true inspiration for the fears that motivate them. Islamic extremists detest individuality and our faith in it, and they detest spiritual freedom and all of the unpredictable variables that accompany it. Unfortunately, we often fear those variables as well, as they carry inevitable costs. Yet the variables of liberty are the source of America’s greatness.

America will find bin Laden and the others and exact justice. Foreign terrorism will never topple America’s spirit as it has toppled a couple of buildings, despite the fact that thousands of innocent families will forever live with searing grief and loss. More threatening is the possibility that we, as citizens of the United States of America, will not open our eyes and stare past our grief and our outrage at terrorism, that we will not look past the physical, bold image of our commercial airliners flying people helplessly to the finality of their deaths, and then reexamine this basic question: What is so special, so unique, so powerful about America that it would lead men to embrace suicide in order to murder thousands of our citizens?

It is an answer we have forgotten for the last four decades. Every day in this country, we focus upon ways to shield ourselves from varied risks with ever-expanding umbrellas of regulation, depriving ourselves of liberty rather than empowering each individual citizen with a readied sword, with the ability to attack or prevent the problems we face as individuals rather than simply struggling to avoid pain as a school of fish. We inject our money, trust, and effort not into individual achievement, but into a regulatory machine that equates the passage of restrictive laws with progress, with safety, and with guarantees of security.

Some of the most recent American reflex is irrational and pointless, yet an accepted part of our culture now. Nineteen terrorists hijacked our planes with plastic knives in an attempt to paralyze our nation. We respond by handicapping our own peaceful citizens, the airline industry, and our economy by funneling ourselves through metal detection and interrogation designed to keep businessmen from carrying toenail clippers onto our aircraft. Yet no one is so deluded as to claim such small-minded measures will prevent future terrorism, and we all understand that they do not every time we stare at the news clips of September 11. Bin Laden and other terrorists simply watch and grow smarter due to our media’s demand for uninhibited access to information. If they choose, they will easily create opportunities for terror and plan a new route around the barriers we erect to no one but ourselves. We have weakened our economy, restricted our freedoms, and terrorism is only stronger for it.

This is a familiar theme in America. We responded to the Columbine massacre, another incredible tragedy, by assuming that our children are beyond repair and that we must thus remove from them any means to exercise their drifting and angry minds towards an inevitably violent end. Cries from terrified mothers for unlimited and universal gun control suddenly assumed legitimacy, as if any amount of laws removing rights from the rest of us would keep two lost and psychotic teenagers from effecting their bid for fame and significance in a life and in a world that we have made futile and meaningless for them. No one ever addressed the fact that free will directed those actions, however warped, and something made them choose to shoot guns. Few ever addressed what it is about America or about modern parenting that allows our children to become so unstable. This is America’s typical addiction to form over substance, the band-aid mentality of fighting the symptoms rather than pursuing a cure. Meanwhile, we continue to spread the disease through complacency.

We can certainly avoid many of the risks of liberty by regulating ourselves into having less. Yet such reflexes only compound the destruction terrorism achieves, rippling more damage throughout our nation to every one of us. Like the PLO and the IRA before him, bin Laden knows that loss of life is not the most devastating damage to a nation’s strength. The constraint of liberty, through fear, is the penultimate goal, the worst handicap on society, and the strongest leverage of terrorism. Those who believe that the solution to terrorism, or any of our problems, is expanded government and reduced liberty, only validate the terrorists and encourage them to strike again. In an effort to secure our freedom, wiser men before us gave their blood, sweat, and tears to erect a bold nation. By conceding even small liberties, we destroy the foundation.

As we contemplate threats from lunatics, we must remember this basic truth: Liberty is not about safety, and it is not designed to be risk averse. The United States did not become the most important and successful country in the world by driving slowly down a paved road with guard rails, by spending more time worrying about workplace ergonomics than working, or by timidly going where many had gone before. America was once a place that embraced calculated risks because we appreciated that freedom was a privilege earned, not an entitlement guaranteed. The enduring nature of freedom was not always the assumption that it is now. Freedom was the ultimate goal. It demanded sacrifice and yes, hard damned work for each of us. It was and is the most precious heirloom we give our children, risks and all.

Reclamation of America’s promise begins now. What we now face is truly a war against individual liberty, that state of grace that generations before us have struggled to achieve and preserve, and that we have steadily abandoned for the last forty years. Liberty of mind, liberty of hope, liberty of love and action. It is a war against freedom, and that is where America must direct its comprehension. We must also recognize that it is a war with two fronts.

On the first front, we must eliminate terrorists. On the second front, we must face our greatest enemy: ourselves. Nothing deters terrorists — or mediocrity — more than a nation of strong individuals, but if we continue to sacrifice our liberties in lieu of fear, we are honestly at risk of achieving the terrorists’ goals by suffocating ourselves.

It simply does not have to be that way. For the first time in over fifty years, America galvanizes into action behind a singular cause, willing to give our own money, blood, even our lives in pursuit of American ideals. That energy has enormous potential. To that America, I ask this question: If we have the courage to secure retribution from those who have attacked us, do we have the courage to fiercely defend our liberties against our own weaknesses, to abandon our sense of entitlement, to reclaim individual responsibility? An affirmative answer requires more than the physical sacrifice of the lives of our soldiers and our loved ones through war. It requires us to take responsibility for the abstract challenges of liberty each day, to embrace them with gratitude, and to work hard as better men have done to face every threat head-on with clenched fists. That means stepping in front of the cameras, facing the world and the terrorists who gain so much gratification when we begin to abandon our own liberties in fear, and declaring: We will not burden our nation with further regulation in response to terrorism. We will not conform, and we will not sacrifice the efficiency and strength of America in a vain effort to avoid pain or delude ourselves with hollow notions of superficial security. We will not request nor allow our government to overreact to the risks of liberty by removing it.

Then, if we are truly to regain national consciousness, we must look into the mirror and say to ourselves: I am responsible for feeding myself, until the day I die if necessary. I am responsible for raising responsible children. I am responsible for my upward mobility. I am responsible for my own happiness, my own basic security and self-esteem, and for all of my actions or lack thereof. Rather than finding excuses for failure, I will find the motivation to succeed the next time. If I become legitimately handicapped, America will help, but I will not handicap myself any longer.

This is my America. As I watch breadwinners fall a thousand feet; as I watch underpaid firemen sift through millions of pounds of debris in a hopeless search for dead friends; as I watch thousands of brave young men and women eagerly accept the call to battle; I understand why I must earn the privilege of being an American, and face the risks of liberty with a sword in hand. My effort is their honor.

Devon Munro is an attorney and writer practicing in Charlottesville, Virginia. He welcomes the comments of readers.

Return to Current Events Index