This Memorial Day was like no other in the history of Memorial Days. And it seems fitting on a day when we honor those who have given their lives for the cause of freedom, to ask the question, “What is the freedom we fight for?”
It might seem like a no-brainer — as in, “Freedom means being able to do what you want as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else.” That’s a good, solid definition of freedom. The tricky part is the latter part of that sentence: “…as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else.” Harm includes physical, mental, and emotional injury. And it includes restricting others’ freedoms — impeding their right to do what they want.
You don’t have to look any further than the daily news to see how the fight for this nuanced definition of freedom is playing out in this new pandemic world we live in. And how difficult it is to balance the freedom of the general population with the freedom of the individual.
On one hand, armed protesters storm a government building, insisting that they have the right to risk their lives if they want to. On the other hand, when their risk cannot be limited to themselves but puts everyone they come in contact with at risk, whose freedom is more important?
Does being asked to wear shirt and shoes — and a mask — in order to enter a store impinge upon an individual’s freedom? Or does the individual’s insistence on dressing the way they want impinge upon the freedoms of the store’s owners, managers, and other clientele?
When someone who doesn’t want to wear a mask and who wants to move freely about risks exposing others to a deadly virus, whose freedom takes precedence?
Does the right to go to the dentist, get your hair cut, eat at a restaurant, or get an education supersede the rights of the health care workers workers or the freedom of a community that chooses to shelter in place? Is the right to work more important than the right to stay healthy?
When a governor or other person in power declares a state of emergency and makes a rule — backed up by the power of law enforcement — that everyone must follow, are we becoming victim to the rule of tyranny or is the person in power merely making decisions that are for the good of the greatest number of people?
George Lakoff, in "Whose Freedom: The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea," frames this discussion in terms of the rule of law:
"Ideally, laws function in the service of freedom, attempting to guarantee that there will be no serious harm, no undue coercion, and no taking of — or restricted access to — property. Enforcement…is seen as functioning positively in the service of freedom."
As a whole, we gain security when law enforcement punishes behaviors that threaten freedom. The security of having most of our freedoms is exchanged for “absolute freedom,” i.e, the unfettered license to do whatever we want regardless of how it affects others.
At what point do security and safety cost too much, in terms of that loss of freedom? Who gets to choose, and who doesn’t?
These are important questions.
James Mattis, in a Washington Post opinion article, argues that the sense of community and shared sacrifice we feel in the fight for freedom brings us together, in spite of the need for physical distance. The freedom he refers to is the freedom to rule ourselves through a system of governance that keeps us from being subject to kings and tyrants. We are subjects only to ourselves.
It is this freedom that our soldiers have fought to preserve.
In this time of unprecedented division and argument over whose rights supersede whose, we would do well to consider Mattis’s words:
"Many of us enjoy America’s freedom by an accident of birth, yet we all live free in this land by our own choice. It is our responsibility to show respect and genuine friendship to each other as fellow citizens — including those with whom we sometimes disagree — by unifying around our radical idea [of self governance]. That is how we can meet our ultimate responsibility: to turn over to the next generation a republic in better shape than we received it."
Can we do this? Are we still capable of respect and cooperation and compromise in the face of deeply different belief systems and ideas about how to solve our problems?
If we are going to remain a free country, we must; the freedom we have come to take for granted depends upon it.