Every school boy and girl knows the famous cry of Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty or give me death!” However imperfectly realized, enshrining and protecting personal liberties and freedoms was the core ideal of our American Revolution, and Henry became a martyr to the cause of greater liberty. Others heard his cry and rallied to advance his cause, to be vouchsafed by a new concord of likeminded individuals, unafraid to risk their safety and even their lives in the cause of liberty and justice.
How far we’ve come from those tough-minded days. Today, our new cry seems to be “Give me liberty or keep me safe”: safe, that is, from the big, bad, terrorist wolf. And since we’ve come to see it as an either/or choice, we’ve compromised basic liberties and rights, such as habeas corpus, and even authorized state-sanctioned assassinations of American citizens accused of aiding terrorists, all in the name of safety and security.
It’s a remarkable spectacle. The United States of America, the country with the world’s most powerful military, the country that continues to dominate the international arms trade, is also the country that’s apparently so frightened of another terrorist attack that we willingly surrender basic liberties and rights – even our core principles that our ancestors fought and died for – just so we can sleep soundly and safely.
As Memorial Day approaches, as we prepare to remember our dead and honor our heroes, we should recall not only their sacrifice, but also the principles for which they struggled and fought. Those principles, of course, are no mystery: they’re stated clearly and simply in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. And they’re best protected, not through weak-kneed compromise, but by steadfast vigilance.
Perfect safety, after all, is not only impossible: it’s seductively dangerous. The more we sacrifice basic liberties and rights in the name of “safety” and “security,” the more likely we’ll lose our so-called “war on terror.” Why? Because we’ll end up terrorizing ourselves.
It will indeed be a hollow victory if, in seeking to win over (or eliminate) the “hearts and minds” of our enemies, we lose in the process our own hearts and minds. For the heartbeat of America doesn’t draw strength from security or safety but from personal liberty and its actualization within a community of truth- and freedom-seekers. Patrick Henry knew this, which was why he committed his heart and soul to it.
Only Americans can hurt America, Dwight D. Eisenhower once said. Let us constantly keep his words before us; let us constantly recall that our freedoms and liberties are still, and forever will remain, our greatest strength.
This article was also published on Huffington Post.