Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Freedom Fried

Two interesting pieces about the precarious nature of "freedom"--one of George Bush's favorite words--in our nation today. First up, from The Progressive (hat tip to Bill in Portland Maine over at Daily Kos):

 
elina Jarvis is the chair of the social studies department at Currituck County High School in North Carolina, and she is not used to having the Secret Service question her or one of her students.

But that’s what happened on September 20.

Jarvis had assigned her senior civics and economics class “to take photographs to illustrate their rights in the Bill of Rights,” she says. One student “had taken a photo of George Bush out of a magazine and tacked the picture to a wall with a red thumb tack through his head. Then he made a thumb’s down sign with his own hand next to the President’s picture, and he had a photo taken of that, and he pasted it on a poster.”

According to Jarvis, the student, who remains anonymous, was just doing his assignment, illustrating the right to dissent.

But over at the Kitty Hawk Wal-Mart, where the student took his film to be developed, this right is evidently suspect.

An employee in that Wal-Mart photo department called the Kitty Hawk police on the student. And the Kitty Hawk police turned the matter over to the Secret Service.

On Tuesday, September 20, the Secret Service came to Currituck High.“At 1:35, the student came to me and told me that the Secret Service had taken his poster,” Jarvis says. “I didn’t believe him at first. But they had come into my room when I wasn’t there and had taken his poster, which was in a stack with all the others.”

She says the student was upset.

“He was nervous, he was scared, and his parents were out of town on business,” says Jarvis.

She, too, had to talk to the Secret Service.

“Halfway through my afternoon class, the assistant principal got me out of class and took me to the office conference room,” she says. “Two men from the Secret Service were there. They asked me what I knew about the student. I told them he was a great kid, that he was in the homecoming court, and that he’d never been in any trouble.”

Then they got down to his poster.

“They asked me, didn’t I think that it was suspicious,” she recalls. “I said no, it was a Bill of Rights project!”

At the end of the meeting, they told her the incident “would be interpreted by the U.S. attorney, who would decide whether the student could be indicted,” she says.

The student was not indicted, and the Secret Service did not pursue the case further.
 


Thank goodness for that. Then there's this from the International Herald Tribune's Roger Cohen, published in the NYTimes (I'm not linking to it as it's behind the NYTimes' TimesSelect subscription firewall; going forward, I plan on using my access to this service to bring you daily bits of the NYTimes columnists you probably don't have access to):

 
Certainly, the United States is a country where the word ''liberal'' has become the most fashionable political insult. For the right, it connotes all the lily-livered, tax-and-spend wimps who would, they claim, hand U.S. defense to the United Nations. Liberalism is fighting for its life even as liberty is lauded to the skies.

That's a paradox and a problem. It's not clear how freedom can thrive in an atmosphere of intolerance.

Raymond Aron, the great French liberal thinker, defined the ''heart and soul of the unending human adventure'' as ''freedom of inquiry, freedom of controversy, freedom of criticism, and the vote.'' That's why he couldn't stand communism or any form of fanaticism. In politics, Aron liked to say, the prosaic is preferable to poetry.

An act of fanaticism, anything but prosaic, undertaken in the name of a totalitarian idea, devastated New York four years ago and the city has been struggling with how to ennoble freedom at the very place where it was attacked, the World Trade Center memorial site. Those efforts hit a low point in recent days.

An International Freedom Center museum, conceived as an integral part of the site, was banished from the memorial quadrant largely because the freedom it sought to illustrate was mistrusted by families of the dead as a camouflage for a liberal, or left-leaning, global agenda. Evicting the museum, Governor George Pataki said there was ''too much controversy'' surrounding it.

So there we have it: a museum of freedom booted out from a site supposed to memorialize not only the loss of 2,749 lives on Sept. 11, 2001, but also the free city, civilization and commerce targeted that day. The difficulties of promoting freedom when illiberal cultural winds are gusting could scarcely be better illustrated.
[...]
The museum, for its opponents, became the thinly disguised vehicle for a human-rights, blame-America agenda dripping with the insufferable do-gooder rhetoric of liberals bent on denigrating American heroes in the guise of being frank about America's shortcomings. In short, the museum found itself slap-bang in the middle of the country's raging culture wars.

The person who put it there was Debra Burlingame, 51, the sister of Charles Burlingame 3rd, the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which was crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

Proclaiming that ground zero had been ''stolen, right from under our noses,'' Burlingame, who can turn a phrase, declared in a June 8 piece in The Wall Street Journal that the proposed museum was a ''slanted history lesson, a didactic lecture on the meaning of liberty in a post-9/11 world.''

It was as insulting and inappropriate, she suggested, as ''creating a Museum of Tolerance over the sunken graves of the USS Arizona'' at Pearl Harbor.

Among her targets were Tom Bernstein, a founder of the Freedom Center, whose extensive work with Human Rights First she lambasted, and the billionaire George Soros, an early contributor to the museum idea. Both, she suggested, were representatives of ''the human rights, Guantánamo-obsessed world'' that talks as much about Abu Ghraib as terrorist murderers.

To say Burlingame struck a chord would be an understatement. Bereaved families, firemen's unions, Rupert Murdoch's press and the political right rushed to the cause. Tens of thousands of people signed a ''Take Back the Memorial'' petition. Soon enough, Pataki buckled.
[...]
A lot of grieving families agree with her. But many do not. Tom Roger, a building company executive, lost his daughter Jean, 24, on American Airlines Flight 11, which hit the north tower. She was a flight attendant.

''My daughter was not a hero,'' Roger said. ''She was a victim, like most of the people who died that day. She died because she went to work. Going to work is an American value, as much as any other, and it's one I believe the center would have honored. But the museum got branded as anti-American, and politicians lost their nerve.''

That is not unusual today. The right holds the moral high ground with talk of heroes and sacrifice. Hero, of course, is a poetic term, one of which Aron would have been suspicious. Victim is more prosaic, and would have been more to his liking. As for an illiberal society trumpeting freedom, it would, I think, have caused him a rueful smile.
 


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