Friday, September 11, 2009

9/11 and the Elusive Meaning of Freedom...

Today is September 11 – a date that has forever changed human history. In reaction to the attacks against the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, the United States became involved in a war that has killed, maimed, injured, and impacted countless Americans, non-Americans, soldiers, and civilians. The United States has plunged itself into debt, dedicating precious time, energy, money, human and ecological life to fund a war that was waged, at least outwardly, in the name of ‘freedom’ and protection of ‘national security’. So what, exactly, is this thing we are fighting for called ‘freedom’? According to the September 11 commemoration events, freedom is something that the American people have that was threatened by the attacks. Today’s events emphasize pride in America and pride in American freedom. To defend American freedom (and supposedly the freedom of the Afghanis and Iraqis) we went to war against those who commit acts of terror that threaten our freedom.

Ok, great. But what, exactly, is freedom, what does it really have to do with being attacked eight years ago on this day, and what does it have to do with war?

In the last few weeks, the Obama IS America! (OIA!) crew went traveling through South America and Australia. While on a bus through Brazil, one of our correspondents had an interesting experience. There was a woman sitting in the seat behind her who put her young child in her lap. The child was moving around, and kicked the seat of our correspondent several times, waking her up from her sleep. She turned around to inform the lady that her son was kicking the seat, and kindly asked her to stop him. The woman denied that her child was doing any such thing and called our correspondent crazy, which set off a brief exchange of unpleasantries between the two women. In the midst of this exchange, the OIA! correspondent noticed that the seat next to the lady was empty. She asked her if she would put her child in the empty seat in order to prevent any potential seat kicking, to which the lady replied, "No, he is free to sit wherever he wants".

To be Free. To have Freedom. What is freedom? What does it mean to be free? Is freedom the ability to do whatever you want, whenever you want? Are you free if someone else determines what you are or aren’t free to do? Is it possible that what this woman identified as her child's freedom to sit where he wants is actually something else entirely? Perhaps. But, if so, then what? Perhaps what she mistakenly called his 'freedom' was her own ego and desire to not be wrong in a situation. Perhaps his 'freedom' was her maternal defense of her child in a situation that she thought might be in some way harmful to him. Perhaps she really believes that freedom is doing whatever you want, regardless of the consequences for others, and therefore our correspondent's comfort was meaningless next to the comfort of her and her child. Notably, the child did not speak once during this exchange, and whether or not he really cared if he sat on his mother’s lap or not remained unclear.

A few short days later, our Obama IS America! correspondent found herself staying at a bed and breakfast in the Atlantic Rainforest (also in Brazil), run by a Brazilian and American husband and wife that live on the property with their three children. One day during her stay, the son of the owners (about the same age as the boy discussed above) was playing with his toys on the front porch. He had spread himself and his toys all over the floor, blocking the passage of guests and his family members through the building’s primary exit. Upon seeing the difficulty that our correspondent was having trying to pass through the corridor because of her child, the mother asked her son to please make room for our correspondent. As he started to move his toys, she turned to our correspondent and said, "You know the kids are so free here, we like to let them run around and play, but sometimes they are kind of hard to control. Sorry if he got in your way!"

The contrast between these two interactions is quite marked. ‘Freedom’ for the second mother seems to be something she fosters in her children, but which is bounded by a consciousness of others and of one’s surroundings. She proclaims her son’s freedom not in defiance of a perceived threat or insult, but as a given, even while acknowledging that the freedom she allows her son to have sometimes inhibits her ability to control his actions. The mother in the first scenario feels that our correspondent’s freedom to sit comfortably threatens the freedom of her own child to sit where and how he wants, asserting his right to this freedom without any apparent regard or concern for the impact of her son’s freedom on the people around him.

Let’s consider for a moment how each mother’s reaction impacted our correspondent. The situation on the bus ended with hurt feelings, flared egos, and an exchange of insults between the mother and our OIA! correspondent. On the contrary, the situation with the second mother ended on a peaceful and pleasant note, and our correspondent even went so far as to pat the child on the head as she walked past him, while informing his mother that she had not felt inconvenienced in the least. So what does it mean that the mother of one child is concerned about her child’s freedom to play and the freedom of others to walk safely and comfortably, while the other mother exhibited offense and denial when informed of the impact of her child’s behavior on others? Does ensuring one's freedom require a consciousness of others, or is the line drawn at the self?

Obama IS America! argues that true freedom requires a consciousness of others, because consciousness of others and of their peace and freedom ensures one's own security. The more peace generated at the individual level, the more that society as a whole will be peaceful and the more likely it will be that people everywhere can be free to live as they wish. Concern for the freedom of others, respected to the same degree as freedom for oneself or one's loved ones, lessens the likelihood of becoming a target for someone else's animosity. Perhaps respect for others also implies more personal and psychological freedom, because by respecting others, one is not bound by the limitations of one’s own ego.

Let’s keep the above reflections in mind for a moment and consider the following. The reaction of the United States government to being attacked on September 11, 2001 was to go to war. We went to war in the name of ‘freedom’ – American freedom, freedom for the Afghani people from the Taliban, freedom for the Iraqis from Sadaam, freedom for the world from Iraq's 'nuclear weapons program' and from

terrorism in general. The United States expressed its concern for itself and for its own freedom through attack on others, reciprocating an act of violence with more violence in the name of ‘freedom’ for Americans from ‘evildoers’ and freedom for citizens of the countries we attacked. Did we accomplish what we set out to do? Yes, we removed the Taliban and killed Saddam Hussein, and sure, it can be said that these acts were good for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq because of the brutality of the regimes removed. However, through the invasion process, our military has killed, maimed, tortured, and raped innocent Iraqi and Afghani people on a regular basis. Studies have shown that the risk of death for Iraqi citizens increased after our invasion[1] as did post-invasion terrorism around the world[2], while other studies analyze the potentially horrific impacts this war has had on the environment – ozone destroying chemicals released into the air, massive sandstorms caused by destruction of deserts by heavy vehicles, and ground-water contamination by depleted uranium are just some of the impacts predicted[3]. It is not just the terrorists that will reap the consequences of massive environmental damage, but all living beings on our planet. After all, our ecosystems are intrinsically connected.

In light of such violence and destruction, it is hard to imagine how our world or any of its inhabitants have become more ‘free’ after eight years of war. American freedom to live and to live without fear has perhaps been compromised to a greater extent now than when the attacks first happened. It is hard to know if this is the way things would have been if we had waited and tried to find a more compassionate resolution to the September 11 attacks other than war. However, at this point in time, perhaps what matters most is how we as a nation will choose to respect, protect, and conceive of ‘freedom’ from now on, and when we as a world society will evolve to a point where war and violent conflict are obsolete.

Freedom is too meaningful, too important to our existence, and too far from being a reality for the majority of people on the planet – regardless of wealth – for us to treat 'freedom' as any other word or any other symbol. Human beings, through some strange order of historical circumstances, have created and chained themselves to systems that destroy our Planet’s ecological systems, destroy each other, and reward hate, selfishness and greed amongst the world's human populations. Peace, compassion, and human and environmental rights seem to have somehow taken a backseat to economic growth, nationalism, and an overemphasis on private interests at the expense of community wellbeing.

If today we commemorate those who died on American soil during the September 11th attacks, let us remember that our government's reaction to their deaths (which is a de facto reflection of our society’s reaction, whether because we wanted war or because we didn't say ‘no’ loudly enough) have led to the deaths, injuries, and human rights violations of tens of thousands of people, the majority of whom had absolutely nothing to do with the attacks on our country. Remembering those killed eight years ago today without meditating on the fact that we chose to respond to their deaths by starting a war with devastating impacts on others, to this blogger, feels empty and hypocritical - more of a symbolic gesture to commemorate a day that we don't quite understand, than a soulful tribute to the meaning and preservation of Freedom.

In honor of the victims of 9/11 both on American soil and abroad, Obama IS America! pledges to work hard to make the world a place that is peaceful, compassionate, loving, and plentiful for all, so no one ever feels that they need to resort to tactics of hate or violence to accomplish whatever it is that is important to them.

[1] See, for example Roberts, Les, et al. "Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey." The Lancet 364.9448 (2004): 1857-864. Accessed on September 11, 2009. .

[2] Glasser, Susan B. "U.S. Figures Show Sharp Global Rise In Terrorism." Washington Post. The Washington Post Company, 27 Apr. 2005. Accessed on September 11, 2009. Web. com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/04/26/AR2005042601623.html>.

[3] Jernelov, Arne. “The Environmental Effects of the Iraq War.” Project Syndicate, Apr. 2003. Accessed on September 11, 2001. Web. <>.


Late 20's Mid west Kid said...

You hit the nail on the head right here. Why should our freedom have to come through the control of other peoples freedoms. You may say that the human beings in afghanistan and Iraq are more free but how could you really be free in a war zone? I walk out of my house spend the whole day outside doing as I please not once looking up to see a young kid with a semi automatic weapon patrolling around looking for my neighbor. Come on yall wake up to your own understanding of the world not what someone else tells you. We aren't hearing what we really need to know at the moment concerning the true state of our Eco system and soon war and freedom won't be a topic of discussion, we won't have time to discuss anything we'll be scurrying from home to home trying to find shelter from ecological chaos. Let's get informed get out of our cars and discuss the inevitable outside of party lines. Beautiful Post, thank you OIA

Obama IS America! said...

Thank you Late 20's Midwest Kid for this comment. We hope to post more in the very near future on the relationship between freedom and the environment, discussing exactly what you mention here, which is that if we don't stop warring NOW and turning our time and energy to figuring out how to live sustainably with the Planet Earth, then in the very near future, it won't matter anyway. Please keep reading, and we will keep posting. Somehow we can get everyone in the world to understand what needs to be done for us to live in a peaceful, productive, and sustainable way around the entire planet.