04 July 2004
On January 20th, 2001, I drove down from New York to Washington, D.C. to witness the inauguration of President George W. Bush. I’d gone four years earlier to see Bill Clinton’s second inauguration; one of the privileges of living on the compact East Coast. Unlike the Clinton event, Bush’s big day was an incredibly charged affair. I’d come as a disinterested observer, keen to simply witness an historical event. But there were people in the crowd who were really angry. Separate from the throngs of beaming white faces wearing brand new white Stetsons, were stern-faced, jeering citizens who were steamed that a man who’d failed to win the popular vote had just taken office. They were further outraged by what they saw as a politically-motivated Supreme Court approving what they were already snidely calling this “coronation.”
Up until that moment, I hadn’t really given any thought to any of it. It had always seemed silly to me to worry about politics. Debates and decisions made by a bunch of old guys in Washington had little, if any, direct effect on my life. I was much more attuned to AFC West standings or what was tops at the box office than I was to anything coming out of our nation’s capital. But these angry young men and women on that inauguration day were very different than I was. They were paying attention, and in their mind something very wrong had just been allowed to happen. Something that threatened the very foundation of American democracy and freedom. At least that’s what their homemade placards said. I was shocked amused that anyone my age would think like this. Surely this was gross naiveté and melodrama on their part. I was further shocked but less amused when the President’s motorcade drove by my position in front of the Navy Memorial and some of these rabble rousers started burning American flags. While they were exercising their freedom of speech, I was speechless. Here were white, educated, suburbanite kids burning Old Glory. I looked urgently towards the police who were in riot gear, waiting for them to do something. But they just stood there, in silent ranks, as the Stars and Stripes went up in smoke. “Come on,” I was thinking, “do something!” But the cops did nothing, and a burning feeling started rising in my gut. My fists were clenched and I started to move toward the protestors. “What are you doing?” my girlfriend of the time asked as she grabbed my sleeve. “I want to hit somebody,” I replied honestly, surprising her and even myself. “You can’t do that,” she replied, grasping my arm even tighter, “it’s their right.”
Fast forward nine months. The evening of September 11th, 2001. There I was in my fatigues, walking around Ground Zero in Manhattan with my fellow National Guardsmen. Again a feeling of shock. Is this really happening? Again, I wanted to hit somebody. But whom?
March 2003. The decision of old white guys in Washington definitely now had a direct impact on my life. Two months later, I am walking the insanely chaotic streets of Baghdad, carrying a rifle and sweating my you-know-whats off underneath all the body armor I’m wearing.
Since then, I’ve heard and talked about freedom everyday. Freedom anywhere in the Middle East is a rare commodity. There was no freedom of speech or assembly (to name two big ones) under Saddam Hussein. By all accounts, this guy had succumbed fully to the darker angels of our nature and was truly a bad man. That the U.S. and its allies rid Iraq of this merciless murderer and emotional terrorist was 100% a good thing. But towards the end of the occupation, Iraqis were no longer talking much about Saddam. “Where is the freedom?” my Iraqi translator would ask me as she had her body and handbag searched by my fellow soldiers on her way into work each day. “Where is the freedom?” she’d demand when turned away from even some bathrooms that were off-limits to Iraqis.
Freedom of the press or speech or assembly is non-existent throughout the region. I was up in Damascus awhile back and, reading the local paper, one would think nothing bad happens at all in Syria. The same goes for all the Arab countries, save now, Iraq. Everywhere else, about the only thing an Arab journalist can write about with impunity is how awful the Israelis are.
Speaking of which, I was in Israel last weekend. For all its faults, it is still the closest thing to a free, democratic society in this region. What they have accomplished is inspiring and worthy of much praise. Israel was a country born out of a 3,000-year-old quest for freedom. But their country is much like the segregationist America of my parents’ youth. In the shadow of Israeli prosperity and democracy, Palestinians are treated horribly, facing humiliation, aggravation, deprivation, and worse everyday. Educated, good-hearted, well-traveled Americans are completely 100% blind to this tragedy. That, too, is a travesty. There is no freedom for the Palestinians at all, only a steady diet of injustice and degradation. As I crossed the border from Jordan last weekend, a young Muslim girl showed quiet defiance (and her age) by wearing a T-shirt that said “Free Palestine.” Unlike the stoic cops at President Bush’s inauguration, the Israeli border guards took a definite interest. They pulled her from the line and berated her in front of us for twenty minutes or so, until she returned shaking, in tears, and completely humiliated. “He could only do that because he had a gun,” her father said as he tried to console her. “He has a gun, but you have God. He has a gun because he is afraid. They are all afraid. That is the price they pay for robbing us of our freedom.”
This was a pretty heady conversation for a father and daughter to have. Most dads in Castle Rock or New York are concerned with the completion of the evening’s homework or the uprightness of the latest high school boyfriend. I felt so glad to be an American.
Freedom isn’t something we think about much in the United States. At least it’s something I didn’t think about all that often. The best part about America is that everyone has the right to be left alone. Folks in all the places I’ve seen in the Middle East don’t enjoy that right. Liberties come as exceptions, not the rule. There’s nothing different between an Arab and an American. We all eat, sleep, laugh, and pray. They were just unlucky to be born into countries with bad governments. A few wrong moves on our part, and we could disintegrate into a nightmare like theirs. History is replete with examples of such unhappy endings. So from now on, I’m going to pay a lot more attention to what those old white guys in Washington are up to. It really, truly does matter. I hope you’ll pay attention too. As Thomas Jefferson, a great patriot and the prime architect of our happiness said a long time ago, “Eternal vigilance is the price we pay for freedom.”