Wednesday, September 26, 2001
The Chronicle Herald

American ‘idea’ worth defending

By Brian Lee Crowley

MOST OF US are still speechless in the face of the enormity of the evil done in New York and Washington two weeks ago. If you’re like me, you are seeking some way to make at least a flicker of light in the sea of darkness that has settled on the human spirit, to make some gesture, however tiny, to say that what has been done to my friends and neighbours is inhuman and intolerable and shall not stand.

What I can best do, I feel, to put my grain of sand on the balance on the side of good is to say what America has come to mean to me. Because make no mistake about it, what terror sought to ridicule and to blot out on Sept. 11 was what America means to millions of people who are not American. If, as I believe, America symbolizes the yearning of millions – no, billions – of people to be free, then we have a duty as civilized people to stand up and say that what America represents shall never be defeated by hate and terror. It can only be defeated by the indifference and complacency of those for whom freedom matters. The America that I have come to love and admire is not the official Washington that springs to mind for so many. It is the idea that animates American life, and the character that that idea has imbued in the American people.

That idea is that freedom matters more than anything. America is the place where people, no matter what their circumstances, no matter what their origins or social class, no matter what their mother tongue, can deploy their own energies in an attempt to become what they want to be. It doesn’t matter if they never reach America’s shores, because the idea that there exists such a bastion of freedom, where one is not subject to the coercive dictates of official religions and ideologies and social hierarchies, changes the world.

It was no accident that citizens of scores of nations were killed in the attack on the World Trade Center. America is a beacon for those who want to be their own masters, who dream of doing what they want. And America is so feared by the zealots and the ayatollahs of the world because it constantly reminds people that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is an ideal deeply rooted in a powerful nation and will never release its grip on the human imagination.

As for the character of Americans, it is hard to pinpoint. But it has something to do with a semi-articulate consciousness of having been blessed with liberty. Forget about the bluster and boastfulness of some Americans. If you want to see them as they really are, go to any small town on the 4th of July and see the faraway look in their eyes as they sing the national anthem, hand on heart. They do not doubt that their country has bestowed upon them something so precious that, if they have to, they are willing to die to defend it. That’s not jingoism – it is patriotism of the most admirable and moving kind.

America’s critics often jeer that the dream of liberty U.S.-style is empty because many people do not succeed in becoming what they want, and are bitterly disappointed. But these critics do not understand what liberty means. It is the freedom to try, not the right to succeed. Freedom isn’t important because our dreams always work out, but because ultimate responsibility rests with each of us to do what we can with what we have. We cannot make of ourselves just whatever we please. But free men and women are responsible for what they become, and that responsibility is an awesome burden that many around the world would give anything to bear.

Yes, the liberty that Americans so value can be misused and abused. But then if you give freedom to all people, what results is the fullest expression of all the yearnings that beat within the human breast. Some of them are mundane, some obscene, some incomprehensible. But some are glorious, powerful and spiritual. And there will be everything else in between. America is a country of excesses because it is the largest canvas in the world on which all facets of the human spirit are given free rein to paint.

Thousands of innocent people died in the World Trade Center because of what the United States represents. In responding to this outrage, America will, of course, make mistakes. What would be the value of freedom if the answers to all the difficult questions were already given? But they will never shrink from defending the idea on which their republic was built, because it is worth defending.

America, it is true, is a sometimes exasperating, even infuriating neighbour. And I would have no other.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: BrianLeeCrowley@aims.ca