A Note on Freedom

Stuff happens...and it’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.

— Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, when asked at a Pentagon press conference about the spreading lawlessness in newly liberated Iraq

Rumsfeld’s words, which soon became notorious, implied a whole political philosophy. The defense secretary looked upon anarchy and saw the early stages of democracy. In his view and that of others in the administration, but above all the president, freedom was the absence of constraint. Freedom existed in divinely endowed human nature, not in man-made institutions and laws. Remove a thirty-five year old tyranny and democracy will grow in its place, because people everywhere want to be free. There was no contingency for psychological demolition. What had been left out of the planning were the Iraqis themselves.

— George Packer, The Assassins’ Gate

I remember when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld uttered the above words. The television, internet, and newspaper had all been ablaze with images of Iraqis turning on their country the moment government disappeared. From the images packaged for us, some 9,000 miles away, Iraq appeared to be a land of pure chaos. American soldiers and Marines were shown standing in packs on street corners or perched atop tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, eyes seemingly always hidden behind dark sunglasses, wary, yet doing little other than watching the looters roll, carry, tote, push, pull, and drag the materiel of a working country away.

As far as the military was concerned, they had fulfilled their mission objectives. The Iraqi army was defeated, Saddam and the Baathists were deposed, and the mighty American military machine was dominating the country. They had no mandate for peacekeeping. And why should they, when the second highest ranking civilian military commander behind the President of the United States, Secretary Rumsfeld, painted the wanton looting and destruction of Iraq’s cultural and political institutions, and infrastructure, as the fits and starts of a dawning era of Iraqi democracy?

When Secretary Rumsfeld spoke those famous words, I was stunned, but only momentarily. For one, the Secretary’s brashness had been evident for quite some time by the spring of 2003, for those too young to remember his previous tenure in Washington. For another, there is the veneer of logic to his statement that, “...free people are free to make mistakes.” Yes, they are, so long as you ignore the fact that the freest states on the planet still punish those whose mistakes break the law. But in a land like Iraq in the early days of the occupation, the only law was in how a person dealt with American troops, lest they get shot. As George Packer inferred in his recent book, this is not freedom, it is anarchy, with the added insult of a military occupation thrown in.

Despite the gaping flaws and ignorance of Secretary Rumsfeld’s declaration, it resonated with a great deal of people in this country. Maybe this was because, after 227 years of existence, and 140 since the Civil War, many people in this country failed to remember that while the power of our freedom lies with our people, the guarantor of this grand bargain we have made with each other is our government.

The Republican Party that controls Washington these days, and that includes Secretary Rumsfeld, tends to demonize the role of government in ensuring personal freedoms. In fact, there are a great many who are openly hostile to the government in this regard, and who work very hard to weaken government in the name of personal freedom.

In these pages, I have written that the legitimacy of our government rests with the citizenry, and that we should always be on the lookout for government intrusions and abuses of freedom. We should, but I look upon these issues as a liberal, where the threat to freedom from government comes in the form of prison bars for dissidents and no Constitutional right to privacy, not taxes or gun regulation.

Perhaps Secretary Rumsfeld felt that freedom and civilized society are not interconnected. When he saw the Iraqis looting their own land, maybe he was incapable of picturing Americans behaving in the same fashion. What an indictment of the Iraqi people he laid at our feet! He might as well have stood at the podium and said, “What did you expect? They’re Iraqi. They’re untidy.” The situation on the streets of Baghdad would not have changed any.

My point here is not to demonize Secretary Rumsfeld, or to accuse him of passive racism. Rather, I think it’s important that we recognize freedom is not an individual effort. It involves the cooperation of every citizen of a society. We agree not to impinge on a person’s will too much, or to engage in behavior that is too excessive. The definitions of these boundaries are thankfully elastic, but when they are breached, individuals are all but powerless to restore freedom or to make redress. It is then that we have no choice but to rely on the institutions our society has empowered to maintain our freedoms.