The Value of Freedom

Dear Islanders:

I had the honor to speak at the VFW Memorial for September 11th last week. I based this week’s letter on my notes for that event.

15 years ago a terrible crime was committed. Thousands of Americans were murdered. We should never forget the soldiers who sacrificed their lives and who continue to fight, the mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters who perished in the planes and in the towers, including the brave emergency service personnel who stormed courageously into the fires.  

Today, I would also like to reflect on not just who lost their lives, but why they lost their lives. It’s something we don’t often talk about, because it’s not easy to talk about. But the crime happened because America is special. And we are special because of the values we hold dear. 

Why did the attack really happen? 

Some have tried to explain away the attacks on September 11 as somehow America’s fault. If you have been lucky enough to avoid the different theories presented to make this point, count yourself lucky. America is not perfect, but I strongly oppose the misguided souls who (for whatever reason) claim that America either caused or was deserving of the 9-11 attacks. 

There are people who say that America was attacked because of its history of oppressing the Muslim peoples of the world, and so the attack was justified payback. Others claim that the attack was God’s wrath brought down upon us because of our decadence. Still others (the same type of people who indulge in the fantasy that the moon landing was faked or that alien lizards secretly rule over us) claim that America attacked itself, i.e., that 9-11 was an “inside job.” None of these arguments are valid.

America is not perfect. But since our nation was first founded, its very existence alone and the ideals we strive for have been offensive and threatening to the great tyrants, bullies, and despots of this world. On September 11th, the most recent set of bullies of our era, lashed out and tried to replace America— the greatest nation on earth—with their criminal cult of death worship. The focus of their creed is a frothing, racist hatred of Jews and a malicious disregard for anyone else they consider outside their group, including Hindus, Christians, and Shia Muslims. The nation of unlimited free thought, inclusion, and hope could only be the natural enemy and target of antipathy for a group so corrupt and so full hopelessness. 

So what does America represent?

From the telephone to your smartphone, so many incredible things came to pass in America. I will give the Renaissance some great credit (another period of relative free thought), but the founding of America marked the start of a great epoch in human development. Human civilization only progressed incrementally since we crawled down from the glaciers after the Ice Age. But in this country over the course of just a few hundred years, we went from mapping the coast of Cape Cod with sea monster etchings to mapping the human genome. 

I believe this progress is fundamentally linked to freedom, and in particular our freedom, to think and express ourselves according to the dictates of our conscience alone, and not the demands of any bleary-eyed crowd or drooling strong man. The freedom to think, is the freedom to create. Also, our nation is not defined by ethnic or racial homogeneity. We are a land of many millions of different pieces (like my children's scattered Lego blocks) glued together by the values we hold dear as set out in our Constitution. And if you read that document, and specifically the First Amendment, many of our values focus on one issue: the right to think and say what you want. I’m talking, of course, about freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of petition, and the freedom of speech. 

Without our values, our flag is just a pretty piece of cloth

Since the stress of the September 11th attacks, our values have been tested and pressured in new and challenging ways. We have been forced again and again to ask ourselves what does America stand for. While I support respectful discourse and despise mob justice, I'm troubled by the extent some are going to redefine our rights. Some universities, for example, have established “safe zones” where certain topics should never be breached. We all want to feel secure, but who gets to pick the “safe” subjects? And of course, in the years following 9-11, it’s unsettling that journalistic freedom and the right to protest have all been limited or eschewed entirely in some instances in favor of security. 

I often think of the play “A Man for All Seasons.” The story is about the ultimate man of conscience who remains true to his principles even when confronted by the highest forms of government authority and outside pressure. In one scene, the protagonist asks a man if he would sacrifice all the laws to catch the devil. He asks, “What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?” The man he’s asking replies fervently, “I'd cut down every law in England to do that!” So finally, the hero asks, “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned on you — where would you hide . . . the laws all being flat?”  The point being, of course, that when you sacrifice your principles for an expedient goal, you may ultimately sacrifice your own security and that goal itself. 

May we remember why they attacked us, as well as the attack

Defending our core American values (what America represents), remains of the highest importance. We live in a place where it’s ok to be different, think different, and act different. Sometimes it's uncomfortable, and people say things that may make us cringe or even hurt. But that’s how it works. That’s the deal we set out in writing so long ago. And in this world, that remains a very rare thing. And that’s why those who hate freedom want to hurt us. We scare them. Freedom scares them. It breaks the chains that they would use to hold us down. 

May we always remain a place where you can believe what you want, say what you want, and live as you want. May America always be a place that welcomes different ideas, different people, different points of view. And may we never sacrifice these ideas because it's comfortable, easy, or expedient to do so.  And on September 11th, when we wave the flag, may we all solemnly pledge to stand up for the values that were attacked and for which those many thousands died. 

With highest regards,