Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Home of the Brave

We live in, “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  I’ve been thinking about that line a lot over the past few days.  Normally, I don’t think much about it at all.  I just start clapping as the Star Spangled Banner ends at whatever public event I might be attending.  But in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, I’ve been thinking about the land of the free and the home of the brave because to be honest, it doesn’t feel like that’s where I am right now. 

Terrorism is scary.  I flew on a plane out of Washington, D.C., the morning of September 11, 2001.  I was back in a DC hotel next to the White House a month later.  I was scared.  We worried a lot back then about the next attack.  Everyone assumed it would happen within weeks.  People filled the chatter on cable news with warnings about dirty bombs and small nuclear devices.   I always figured that if I was outside in a place where there was a dirty bomb, I’d want to move into the wind.  For 14 years, I’ve made note of the wind direction while traveling. 

Watching what happened in Paris was scary.  These were not attacks on landmarks or government buildings or military targets.  These were attacks on neighborhood cafes and a concert venue.  These were attacks on the normal actions of everyday life.  Most of us know what it is like to sit in a neighborhood café and relax on a Friday night.  Not only did the attackers hit settings where we don’t expect violence, they hit a city where we don’t expect violence.  It isn’t as shocking to see a terrorist attack in Beirut because I’ve seen death and destruction in Beirut on my TV screen before.  But Paris is different.  Paris is the city of romance, beauty and peace.  It isn’t a place I associate with violence.

So it is pretty easy to be scared by the events in Paris.  It’s pretty easy to think that if it can happen in Paris, it can probably happen here, in my city, where I live.  When I let my brain go there, when my thoughts are filled with ideas and images of terrorists attacking here in Colorado, “I stop living in the home of the brave.”  I worry about my family and friends.  Those are scary thoughts. 

But here’s the problem.  As Americans, we’ve built a culture that says we will rise above that fear.  Freedom requires bravery. We know that is true.  We sing about it in our national anthem.  Fortunately, we don’t have to practice it on an individual level very often.  Most of the time we can stand behind others who volunteer to put on a uniform, serve their country and demonstrate bravery while we stay comfortable in our homes and repeat the old cliché, “Freedom isn’t free.”  We are safe, we are secure and there is very little burden to that safety and security.  But Paris forces us to look at ourselves and ask ourselves, “what am I willing to do today to demonstrate bravery in order to preserve freedom?”  I believe we must ask ourselves that question because one of the goals of the terrorists is to scare us and cause us to live in fear.  The terrorists know that freedom requires bravery.  The easiest way to destroy freedom is to force people to think that life takes more bravery than they are willing to offer.    

How do we demonstrate bravery in the wake of the attacks in Paris?  The first thing we have to do is simply experience life together.  We have to turn off cable news.  We have to turn off social media and we have to go to a café or restaurant, or to a concert, or to the movies.  We need to get away from the non-stop coverage and posts and comments and the negativity that comes with it and reengage with our neighbors and our community. 

The second thing we need to do is to live in some silence for a little bit.  Social media and cable news offer us the grand illusion of unity.  They make us feel like we are united together by binding us with people who think just like us, and then they work hard to reinforce those similarities.  But in reality, there are few things more divisive than cable news and social media.  By reinforcing similarities and painting even the most trivial of differences as extreme and dangerous, cable news and social media leave all of us with a distorted view of the world.  Whether online or on TV, ratings and clicks are driven by emotion and passion.  As a result, those creating online content and cable news shows look to constantly push the boundaries of extreme ideas.  Public policy decisions become more about winners and losers than how to best move our country forward.  Compromise, the key to any highly functioning democracy, becomes more difficult and in some cases impossible.  Thoughtful consideration of issues falls to the side in favor of soundbites. 

At a time when we are emotionally challenged by the events in Paris, some time for quiet thought and reflection could serve us all well. 

The third thing I believe we need is to return to our values.  The problem with a conversation about values is that decisions made in fear and actions taken in fear, don’t always match up well with values.  So the question we face is this; Are we who we say we are?  We have held ourselves out as a beacon of freedom to the world.  Will we continue to be that beacon? If history is any guide, we don’t do well at holding to our stated values when we are scared.  The internment camps we set up and sent Asian Americans to in World War II are just one example of us losing site of that vision of who we want to be. 

Now, millions of people in the Middle East are fleeing a level of regular terrorism that most of us can’t imagine.  They are searching for a place where they can rebuild their lives and their careers doing such ordinary jobs as teachers, doctors, plumbers, and farmers.  We see them coming and we are afraid.  We are afraid that some of those individuals that have been terrorizing these people in their home countries in the Middle East may join them and pretend to be refugees so that they can gain entry into the United States and do us harm.  It is a reasonable fear.  But to deny aid and comfort to millions of terrorized people because of that fear is to deny who we say we are as Americans.  (And if you are a Christian like me, it certainly isn’t what our faith would have us do.)  If we deny them aid and comfort and the opportunity to rebuild shattered lives then we cannot claim to be the beacon of freedom for the world.  Because we are not.  We have let our fear overtake our bravery and we have decided to live behind walls built of that fear.   

What the terrorists know is that fear is an easy way to destroy freedom.  If they can get us to forget our values and to instead focus on our fear, they don’t need to defeat our armies.  They will have caused us to deny our faith and our values. 

To be free, we must all be brave.  Instead of simply relying on those who volunteer to wear a uniform to be brave for us, we must all be brave.  We can do so, while taking reasonable precautions to do our best to ensure our safety.  We do not need to be foolish.  But if we are to be Ronald Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill,” a beacon of freedom for all, we cannot close our doors, our hearts and our minds to those that are fleeing terrorism.  We can’t build a wall around our lives and never venture out into the world.  Because that isn’t freedom.  Freedom is best defined by the people who, after 9/11 in this country and on last Saturday in Paris, ventured out into the streets and went to the cafés, the theaters and the concert halls.  In spite of my fears, I pledge to join them.    

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