On the last day of 2005, I took an out-of-town guest to see the Vietnam Memorial. A small Christmas tree stood by the path, decorated with cards of remembrance for those who died in the eight-year conflict. Personal messages scribbled on the mournful ornaments promised fallen soldiers that they will be remembered – and thanked them for protecting our freedom.
My sadness at seeing the names of the dead thousands etched into black marble was suddenly tempered by anger: was it really our freedom they died protecting in Vietnam? Is it really our freedom that the soldiers in Iraq are fighting for today? What does the word freedom mean anyway?
Or better yet, what has it come to mean today?
There used to be a time when saying freedom felt like taking in a deep, cleansing breath of air. Exhale and feel at peace. Today, the word is heavy, laden with contradiction, oppressive like a heavy boulder trapping us between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
Freedom has been overused and abused, its meaning perverted by public figures seeking to capitalize on blind patriotism, a sentiment waning in the midst of rising death tolls in Iraq and economic hardships at home.
It seems that the less palatable the situation in Iraq becomes, the more freedom is sprinkled over speeches and death-count announcements. Is it just an attempt to sweetly coat the all-too-bitter pill we're asked to swallow each day?
A case in point: in January 2004, President Bush's approval rating soared to its highest level ever at 59%; he used the word freedom eight times in his State of the Union Address, or once per every 6.75 minutes of speech. In January 2005, one year and over 800 American war casualties in Iraq later, the President used the word freedom twenty-one times in his State of the Union Address, or once per every 1.4 minutes of the speech. His approval rating plummeted shortly thereafter, reaching the all-time low of 45% two short months later.
The word freedom is used to placate the public, to reassure us that there really is a reason for war, for destruction, for death.
As it has been continually forced down our throats and used to constrain our collective conscience from reaching beyond the Wag the Dog realities of the current political situation, the word freedom has ceased to exist in the sense described by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary: "the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action." The juxtaposition of its original purpose and its current applications could not be more mind-numbingly contradictory.
How could we let this happen? How could a word so noble be so quickly cheapened? How and when did we let freedom go?
In his 1963 I Have a Dream speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. evoked freedom in its truest, purest form: freedom as foe of oppression; freedom as a guiding light that would lead our nation out of its darkest years of racism, hatred and violence; freedom as a banner behind which all people could stand and proclaim in one voice their right to equality, respect, and a peaceful co-existence.
That August day, freedom rang through the crowd gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, but it did not stop there. It rang through the radios and television sets all across America, and it rang through classrooms and backrooms and boardrooms all around the world! Most importantly, for the next four decades, it rang and resonated in the ears of women and men who have worked to make all of us a little better – a little wiser, more peaceful and, I hope, more accepting of our vastly diverse world.
Sadly, that ring has been silent as of late. There are still times – those rare moments when the mainstream media and the closed-minded political pundits who pollute our airwaves pause to catch their breath – when you can hear a faint echo of freedom’s ring emerge from the fringes. It softly whispers in the ears of pro-peace activists, and conscientious objectors, and all those who can see through the smoke and mirrors and recognize the deadly quagmire we are in today.
Yes, freedom whispers and it wails – it cries for its loss of innocence, its loss of vigor, its loss of relevance… After all, it falls on deaf ears all too often these days.
Well, I am tired of the whisper. I am tired of straining your ears and hearing nothing but muffled moans. Aren't you?
It is time, my fellow Americans, to reclaim freedom. It is time for a revision of the Bush-Cheney dictionary, for a collective spell-and-grammar check of our political value system. It is time to return meaning to those holiday cards at the Vietnam Memorial.
It is time to make freedom ring once again. And this time, let's bring some amplifiers.