Bastion of Free Speech

Thursday, Oct 18, 2001

Open your wallets, not your mouths
Niranjan Ramakrishnan

Not a day passes but when our leaders urge us to get back to normal life. "This is America", they tell us. "The terrorists can crush our buildings, but not our spirits". And then they urge us to do all the things we should do as Americans. Go shopping. Travel. These are the activities, we are told, which would ensure the safety of our republic in the face of the terror we confront today.

Curiously, not a single leader has asked us to use the one most distinct facet which sets us apart as Americans. I mean the exercise of free speech. This is a measure of the progressive lowering of sights in our political life.

No one - unless I missed some statement along these lines from some political worthy (which I rather doubt as it would have stood out, catching the imagination even of our uni-dimensional TV networks) - but no one - has urged us to continue to use our political freedoms to the utmost. How could they, given how busy they are passing bills that would curtail these very freedoms?

Listening to President Bush's recent speeches, one is struck by how often he asks us to shop and travel as a way to defy the terrorists. This was his advice to the thousands of people who had written to him asking how they could help defend the country. How refreshing, how stirring, how inspiring, it would have been if the President had said, "Continue to act free - to talk, to discuss, to speak out. That is the meaning of America." Instead, of course, we've been getting veiled messages from his press secretary and other colleagues, suggesting that everyone be careful of what they say and do. (Evidently this admonition does not apply to its own dispensers, who were themselves found to be rather careless with the facts in their rendition of events.)

With a breezy fervor which would have been hard to imagine if it had not happened before our eyes, Congress has approved draconian measures of detention - though still not fast enough for Attorney General Ashcroft. It is pathetic too that our leadership was trying to pressure not only American TV outlets into not broadcasting Bin Laden's speech, but also trying to twist Al Jazeera's arm. Instead of treating Bin Laden with the contempt he deserves, and having some lowly official say we'd take his lectures more seriously when he allows others to speak freely and preach their religion as he does his, we got down to his level and tried unsuccessfully to make Al Jazeera change its broadcasts.

It is in times of crisis that men and nations are tempered, when leaders have the opportunity to define their nation. At such a rare moment, President Bush has chosen to define America as a nation of - shoppers! Echoes of Napoleon? Sort of, until you realize Bonaparte was heaping scorn on another country. Ironically, from the country which Napoleon dismissed as shopkeepers came Winston Churchill. In Parliament during World War II, Churchill spoke of how the terrible state of the British military was being analyzed daily in the press and heard on the BBC by the entire world, to the dismay of Britain's armed forces and to the delight of her enemies. He finished by saying he was proud to belong to a nation which dared to give its people these freedoms even in such perilous times - after all, was this not very the freedom (we are) fighting to preserve?

It is a matter of pride for each American that that America is an unusual - even unique - country. That uniqueness does not lie in our wealth, our military strength, or our ability to send spacecraft to the moon. Indeed, these achievements are products of this uniqueness, not its cause. America is unique because it believes the individual is unique, and guarantees him his freedom and liberty. In any moment of crisis, the most American act is the full exercise of this freedom; the most un-American act is to follow the herd.

Close to a century ago in India, during the imposition of severe British restraints, Motilal Nehru (Jawaharlal's father) wrote, "Better to breathe God's free air in rags, than be a corpse in the finest raiment." No greater tragedy can befall America than the compromising of God's free air in pursuit of fineries. The first American, Benjamin Franklin, wrote that "Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security, will not have, nor do they deserve, either one." The idea of freedom is at the heart of all human striving. In America's case, it is both its founding idea and its destiny.

It is an idea neither Bin Laden nor Bush must be permitted to stifle.

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