Freedom had little to do with terrorism attacks

Tom West, West Words
Tom West, West Words

Among the lessons learned this week were:

“Guns don’t kill people, pressure cookers do.”

Or how about:

“Guns don’t kill people, but ricin can.”

Or maybe:

“Guns don’t kill people, fertilizer does.”

I think the underlying message of it all was: It’s a hazardous world out there, so keep your affairs in order.

One of the reactions that I find irritating and unhelpful was uttered by NBC’s Tom Brokaw and other commentators. Brokaw said that this is the price we pay for freedom.

No, it’s not. This is the price we pay for bad parenting, bad genes or bad hormones.

Freedom does not require that you risk life and limb whenever you go out in public. A free society does require that every one of us exercise some self-restraint.

We are now being told that events such as occurred at the end of the Boston Marathon are much rarer today than they used to be. We are safer now. You could have fooled me.

One thing that has always been true of the human condition is that most of us can be convinced of just about anything.

We can even convince people that genocide is good, murdering thousands of people at once. Think Hitler, Idi Amin, the Khmer Rouge and a host of others.

The difference today is that we can form extremist cells much more easily than in the past. Just over a century ago, we were limited by geography. We lived in geographical communities of limited space. Most everybody in that community had a support system because family members were close by. Because we had nothing to compare with, we assumed the community norms were as they should be, even if they were different from the next community.

Then communications technology came along, and the great hope was that by showing people how others lived, we could improve our own lives and also better understand others from outside our community.

What we’ve discovered, however, is that exposure to views conflicting with our own is too threatening. Instead, too many seek out only those with whom they agree.

Earlier this week, writing in the National Journal, Charlie Cook, publisher of the Cook Political Report, bemoaned the loss of swing districts across the United States.

Cook found that in 1998, 164 of the 435 congressional districts could be considered “swing seats” because the citizens in those districts voted within 5 percent of the national partisan average. Back then, 148 districts were solidly Republican and 123 were solidly Democratic.

Today, Cook discovered, only 90 swing districts remain. The number of solidly Republican districts rose to 186 and the number of solidly Democratic to 159.

Furthermore, 15 years ago the median Democratic district voted 7 percentage points more Democratic than the national average and the median GOP district voted 7 percent more Republican. Today, the median numbers are 12 percent more Democratic and 10 percent more Republican.

Democrats and Republicans represent a majority of Americans. If they are becoming more extreme, where does that leave the outliers?

Today, we can sit in our bedrooms on the Internet, and find a community of interest, even if it is just redheads obsessed with Justin Bieber. Meanwhile, the person in the next room or apartment can be learning how to make bombs out of pressure cookers.

If nobody is asking. “What’s up?” the human psyche is such that a few of us can come to the belief that the only way to give our lives meaning is to kill a bunch of our fellow humans.

Freedom has nothing to do with it. A century ago, as today, nobody forced people to talk only to people with whom they agreed. The difference is that because communication options are so much more vast, we can narrow our community of thought down to a narrow sliver of extremism, or even lethality.

No countervailing force exists to restore perspective. Freedom or its lack doesn’t affect that.

Federal Judge Learned Hand said it best in 1944: “What do we mean when we say that first of all we seek liberty? I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.…

“What is this liberty that must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not the freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check on their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few — as we have learned to our sorrow.

“What then is the spirit of liberty? … The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near 2,000 years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.”

It’s good that we catch the perpetrators of these crimes, but it’s more important that we retain that spirit of liberty.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at [email protected].