Lessons Learned Since Those Heady Days After the Wall Fell

In 1989, I was the proud father of my first child, a son. It was also the year my wife and I bought our first house. And that year, I, along with much of America, watched the fall of the Berlin Wall on television. That’s also where I heard about the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu, and the arrest of Erich Honecker. For me, it was like seeing Allied soldiers shaking hands at the Elbe River.  The Cold War was over, and we won.

Later the next year, my mother gave me a small cardboard box. Inside the box was a tiny chip of concrete, which the box claimed had been part of the Berlin Wall. I doubted the authenticity of the “relic” almost immediately, but I cherished it anyway. Not because of its monetary value, or even its supposed historic significance. I kept that box because to me it represented the day we gave communism the final beatdown it had so long deserved. For me, a child of the Cold War who had grown up with Third World War nightmare scenarios, that box represented the day the good guys won, and the oppressed people of Europe took back their countries. The box didn’t hold a fragment of dusty concrete; it held the self-righteous vindication of my entire worldview.

Of course, I was a lot more idealistic in 1989. (To give you a sense of my naiveté, it hadn’t even occurred to me that nature didn’t make humans with the body types of Jose Canseco and Mark McGuire.)  I can distinctly remember thinking that the people who had lived behind the Iron Curtain were going to join us in repudiating their pasts and that before too long, the entire industrialized world would be (relatively) friendly bastions of pro-Western capitalism and democracy. I assumed that Cuba would fall to revolution within weeks and that China couldn’t stand alone forever. Once China had “converted,” of course, their North Korean dependents would beg their cousins in the South to reunify. Vietnam would finally come to its senses, demonstrating that we had known what was best for them all along. President George H.W. Bush spoke of a “New World Order.” At the time, there was little doubt which nation would be directing this “New World Order.” In my view, the new boss had arrived.

As it turned out, Communism hung tough in a few small pockets of the globe, and one really big pocket. The euphoria of the young democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, with their cardboard Statue of Liberty and willingness to stand before tanks, couldn’t bring freedom to China. Tyranny dies hard, I suppose. Russia’s path to democracy has been filled with stops and starts, and some there remember the old Soviet Union with a whitewashed fondness, because those were the days when Russians felt powerful. Rather than being our democratic partners, the Russians have opted to be the loyal opposition. So have the reunified Germany and France, for that matter. Cuba continues to poke a stick at us from across the Straits of Florida and Vietnam hasn’t admitted to the error of its ways.

November of 1989 seems like so long ago now. The United States, knowing what was best for everyone else, tried to direct the “New World Order,” with mixed results. Nowadays, I wonder whether world leadership is really worth all of the grief. I suspect many others wonder, too. I guess people just don’t like to be led, even if it is by the “good guys.” But, you know what? I am the father of teenagers, so, I understand. I didn’t understand much in 1989, but in 2009, I understand more. Maybe not a lot, but more than I did then.

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The Fort Hood Massacre as the Price of Free Speech

At what point, and to what degree, will Americans be willing to impinge upon their freedom of speech if they believe that lives are at stake? That question bubbles to the surface again today as more becomes known about Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged shooter in the Fort Hood massacre, who apparently was angry about the United States’ prosecution of the War on Terror.

According to wire reports, Hasan’s family was connected with a Virginia mosque that at one time hosted the preaching of radical imam Anwar al Awlaki, and where two of the September 11th hijackers worshiped.  Writing from Yemen, the imam, author of the controversial “44 Ways to Support Jihad,” praised Hasan’s actions and condemned Muslims critical of the attack as “hypocrites.” Awlaki has been often accused of intentionally inciting English-speaking Muslims to violence against the Western World.

This is where the whole “freedom of speech” thing gets somewhat sticky. If it can be demonstrated that Awlaki’s words led to Hasan’s actions, do we still consider those words protected speech? Remember, the element of religious freedom exists to even further complicate the matter. If preaching hatred from the pulpit causes others to deem it God’s will, or perhaps just acceptable, to harm others, should that speech be banned?

Be careful. Before you reflexively answer “yes,” consider the implications. If this ban were enacted, could radical anti-abortion groups be targeted for “hate speech?” How about Rush Limbaugh? Still on board? What about a President who openly condemns insurance interests for their opposition to health care reform? What would seem like an overreaction is only so until there’s an incident involving a desperate man whose child has been denied coverage for what he considers a life-saving treatment. If that were to occur, the culpability of public figures under the new law would immediately come into question, and no doubt countless lawsuits would be filed by the aggrieved.

This is the problem we run into as Americans who profess to defend freedom above all else. If we choose to allow speech that amounts to public attacks upon individuals and organizations, attacks that are intended to arouse individuals to action (as all political attacks are), attacks that we now consider as a normal part of the political process, we must also allow the speech of hate-spewing imams in Virginia.

Of course, there are limits which have been consistently applied over the years, such as removing from that protection speech which can be construed to have the deliberate, intentional purpose to cause harm to another individual or to deprive that individual of their rights under the law. However, in this case, that doesn’t seem to be what was going on in Virginia.

In the coming days, there will be plenty of calls for a rethinking of what’s being preached in America. There may also be condemnations of the patriotism of certain Muslims in America. While it may be easy to point out that inciting people to hate is wrong, it is a far more difficult task to regulate it. I suspect that after the dead of Fort Hood are buried, and the final notes of taps drift away in the autumn breeze, we will discover the price of that regulation to be too steep, and in the end, a poor tribute to those who were, in the end, martyrs of a society based upon free speech.

Oh, Sweet Irony, Thou Art A Hard Mistress

Irish rockers U2 will play a free concert at the Brandenburg Gate tonight in Berlin, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall.  The show is part of MTV’s European Music Awards and is expected to draw a walk-up crowd of about 100,000.  Organizers, however, have decided that capitalism can’t survive in an atmosphere where large numbers of people can get to see the show for free. Their response? Sheer genius.

The Berlin Wall was constructed beginning in 1961 to protect communism by keeping East Germans in their place – and away from a clear view of freedom. Now, somehow oblivious to the irony, U2 concert promoters have ordered a 12-foot wall erected to protect capitalism by keeping non-ticket holders in their place – away from a clear view of the band.

So now, we have a large wall separating the people of Berlin from a show that is celebrating the destruction of a large wall separating the people of Berlin.

Perfect.

Maybe 20 years from now, the surviving members of U2 can be wheeled onto a stage in Berlin to celebrate the destruction of that wall, too. If you want to see that show, though, you’d better make sure you get there early to get a ticket, just to be on the safe side.