Freedom: Real and Imagined

Americans use words like “freedom,” “liberty” and “democracy” all the time.  These words are so ingrained in our culture that they roll off the tongue almost without thought or appreciation as to what they really mean and stand for.

Americans use “freedom” and “liberty” to express aversion to governmental concepts as diverse as: the requirement for motorcyclists to wear a helmet while riding;  forcing people to submit to enhanced security measures at airports before boarding planes; and a law ensuring that all Americans have access to health care.

Does the use of “liberty” and “freedom” in this context devalue the terms?  I’m not sure about the answer to that one.  However, my nose is a very sensitive device for sniffing out exploitation of these words for political gain.  In fact, each time I hear these nouns uttered in the media, I have an instant moment of suspicion that one group or another is (mis)using these words to inflame the passions of their fellow Americans.

But, do we Americans really know what these words mean anymore?  Have we so overused them that we have become desensitized to their true power and worth?

Wikileaks recently published thousands of sensitive “cables” detailing the inner workings of the various American governmental bodies, including the Department of State.  Although the intent of the publishers may have been to embarrass America or expose corruption or hypocrisy on the part of its officials, the Wikileaks release actually shined light on a professional and knowledgeable corps of diplomats working to achieve openly-stated American foreign policy goals.

Surprisingly, the negative fallout from Wikileaks has come from the exposition of the true practices of several autocratic world leaders through the eyes of American officials.  Oppressed peoples around the globe received confirmation of what they knew all along: their leaders were enjoying the spoils while the people suffered.

Until a short time ago, I wager that most Americans had no idea where Tunis was.  Its nation of Tunisia might have been a little more recognizable.  However, I wouldn’t force anyone to find it on a map.  The country’s ancient name, Carthage, is probably even less known by Americans.

President Ben Ali

Among the Wikileaks releases last December was an account of the American Ambassador to Tunisia’s dinner at the home of a member of the ruling family of that nation.  His account of the excesses of that home as well as releases detailing the corruption of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, literally ignited Tunisian society.

Mohamed Bouazizi.

On December 17, 2010, a 26-year old fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest bribes demanded by local police and the abuse he had received from them.  As this event became known, anger spread, well, like wildfire among the Tunisian people.

Popular uprisings were greeted by government bullets at rallies.  Dozens of unarmed civilians were killed when the state security forces fired into a mob.  Anger spread even further.

In an attempt to mollify the crowds, President Ben Ali made his way to the bedside of the dying Bouazizi.  During this act of political theater, he promised reforms.

Ben Ali visits Bouazizi in hospital.

On January 4th, Bouazizi died.  The furor did not.

The house of cards began to topple shortly after that when government troops refused orders to continue firing into crowds.

On January 14th, President Ben Ali and his wife fled Tunis.  The mobs wished him a not-so-pleasant journey by shaking their fists at him. 23 years of Ben Ali rule came to an end.

Ben Ali’s attempt at exile in France was denied by President Sarkozi.  He ended up in Saudi Arabia.

Back home in Tunisia, the leaders left in charge had no choice but to capitulate to demands for greater freedom.  It appears to be the dawning of a new day in that state.

Inspired by their North African neighbors, self-immolations took place in Algeria, Mauritania and Egypt.  In all of these cases, people were literally willing to set themselves on fire for “freedom,” “liberty” and “democracy.”

These extreme acts in furtherance of freedom make present-day American use of those terms seem juvenile, don’t they?

The image in my mind is of well-off and sheltered suburban kids who have no clue as to what life on the mean streets is all about.

— The Major

Mohamed Bouazizi, 12/17/10.


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