Events over the last month in Tunisia, Southern Sudan, and Egypt should cast a bright light on things we tend to take for granted while going about our daily lives in America. It’s certain the citizens of those African countries and millions of others residing elsewhere under repressive rule don’t take freedom and liberty for granted.
The populations of the aforementioned African nations have experienced firsthand a lifetime filled with repression, corruption, and fear where individual freedom is a privilege only granted through the graciousness of government and society.
This foundational principle is held much to the contrary in our way of thinking: Freedom is a fundamental yearning within the spirit of every living thing and it is society and government that can shackle and censor it or allow it to flourish.
Freedom; incarcerated criminals dream of it, teenagers demand it, and 99% of Southern Sudanese voted in favor of it last month (voter turnout in Sudan was over 97% ; another teaching moment for Americans). It’s easy for us Americans to lose touch with how precious and all encompassing that commodity is when we haven’t known any other way of life.
Our moment came in Philadelphia, in 1776. Regrettably, Americans in 2011 don’t have any ‘before and after’ freedom experiences like those of liberated Italy and France of the 1940’s. Or how about the Eastern bloc countries that had theirs in the 80’s and Iraqi’s who celebrated a new future in 2010 when a purple index finger became their symbol of freedom. The sentiment of liberty embodied by these groups of people carries a much different tone than that of the average American.
Egyptians, Tunisians, and some Sudanese are now on the cusp of having their own Berlin Wall moment as decades old barriers to freedom stand exposed to come down. That is, if these democratic movements are not hijacked by external agents or forces from within that feel their power being taken from them. As of this writing, embattled President Hosni Mubarak remains in control of how the Egyptian leadership crisis will end as competing interests jockey to fill the upcoming vacuum; some embody ulterior motives having nothing to do with democracy or freedom. An undetermined majority portion of the 80 million oppressed Egyptians would love to taste the social, economic, political, and religious liberties they have seen showcased in other countries of the world.
But the freedom Egyptians long for remains elusive as those holding the power and control will resort to whatever becomes necessary to keep it. I was reminded recently by a three tour Army tank commander returning from Iraq, “he who owns the tanks owns the people”. One should recall how pro-democracy Iranian citizens behind the Green Movement of 2010 had their freedom moment quashed by Zulfiqar tanks of the ruling theocracy’s Revolutionary Guard, or the 1989 scene of the Chinese dissident in Tiananmen Square squaring off with Peoples Liberation Army Type 59 tanks.
Egypt’s tanks have been omnipresent in Tahrir Square but have remained uniquely merciful and neutral thus far. The tanks however are a metaphor of who has controlled the Egyptian people for decades. Time will tell if they will succeed in having their own before and after freedom experience.
Where do Americans figure into all of this? – With renewed perspective, appreciation, and example.
In contrast to what you remember of Stalin’s USSR, what you know of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and what we surmise about the future of Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea; do you ever acknowledge your guaranteed liberty to publicly express opinions that are not congruent with the status quo or the freedom to gather in large groups in civil protest or support? When we hold civil authorities accountable for their actions, choose (or not) to worship at XYZ church, or simply have access to read privately owned and uncensored newspapers – do we appreciate or even think to give any of these liberties a second thought? Probably not because these liberties and those contained in the remaining nine elements of our Bill of Rights have been part of American social fabric since James Madison introduced them in 18th century. Simply put, we’ve gotten too comfortable with our freedom and most times, take it for granted. There are even instances when we willingly cede individual liberties giving control back to government.
To drive this point of perspective and appreciation further, Bryan Riley of the Heritage Foundation wrote of a recent survey conducted by the French Institute of Public Opinion whereby the results clearly indicated who really likes freedom. In summarizing their numbers; Americans choose their form of economic freedom by a substantial margin of 4:1. But Brazil and China, both categorized as “mostly unfree while accounting for 22% of the world’s total population would opt for US style economic freedom by a factor of 8:1 and a whopping 22:1 respectively.
In Bryan Riley’s words, “Perhaps freedom, like many things in life, is something best appreciated by those who don’t yet have it”.
Egypt, Tunisia, Southern Sudan, and a global host of countries with repressive regimes and their malicious lieutenants can provide Americans with a teaching moment on appreciating the deep seated value of freedom we enjoy.