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Essay: What is Freedom?

May 14, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Here we are at the crossroads of democracy. No, not Baghdad, but Lancaster, California, U.S.A., a small, but fast-growing, city 70 miles north of Los Angeles, a city where families have come to raise their kids in sprawling subdivisions, and send them to public schools. A city, yes, with the requisite malls and chain stores, but still with a leftover rural twang. And that twang is now infected by the big-city blues. In short, crime, drugs, guns, meth labs, and prostitutes, have found their way here, drifting up from the big, bad metropolis below. Say it ain’t so.

Well, the powers that be in Lancaster are trying to do just that: Come up with a novel way of keeping their 94-square mile city safe. Lancaster, home to a state prison, is proposing to make the roughest parts of the city off- limits to parolees and probationers. Show up in the designated area– these 20 square blocks behind the sheriff’s station– and you’ll be warned the first time; arrested the second.

Smart? Draconian? Unconstitutional? Take your pick. That’s the point. Once again, we’re seeing a full-tilt freedom fight in the streets of America. But can you do that in a bright, shiny American city, designate a no-entrance zone for certain folks? Isn’t that pushing the democratic envelope?

What we forget, of course, is that that goes on somewhere in this country every day, in every imaginable way. We are watching on our TV sets, now, the attempted birthing of a democracy in Iraq. It is a stirring, if messy, spectacle– costly, exciting, sometimes deadly. Can we do it? Is it ours to do? Is this who we are now? The great exporters– some would say imposers– of democracy, where do you start? With town councils and judicial systems and elections? How do you inculcate a taste for freedom in people used to authoritarian rule, and what, in fact, does the idea of freedom even mean to people who have never had it? And how, conversely, do you protect that freedom if it is already yours?

That’s what I think about standing here. Part of you says, “what’s the big deal? Let them have their no-entrance zone. They’re just trying to clean something up, to preserve something.” But the other side of you says, “Can’t do it, violates the law, and violates the very notion of what it means to be an American. After all, don’t parolees have the right to come and go?” And there it is, that crucial juncture, that line in the sand.

Ever since September 11, we’ve tried to do nationally what the little city of Lancaster is trying to do locally: Protect ourselves without squandering too much of our freedom. We have detained people, disallowed them lawyers, we’ve surrendered some of our right to privacy to the government, hoping that it will not abuse that trust as it sometimes has in the past. While these measures help many of us feel safer, they have simultaneously made a lot of us feel quite uncomfortable, because we all know what’s at stake, how fragile freedom is.

From the streets of Lancaster to the streets of Baghdad, the questions are the same. What is freedom? Who is freedom for? And who gets to decide? You, me, us, them? Those are the ultimate questions, the ones we ask ourselves every single day.

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.