As we mark the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, those whose job is to defeat our enemies rightly tell us the following:
“Not only must we kill the terrorists; we must do our utmost to dissuade people from choosing terrorism in the first place. We are in a struggle that requires not just physical weapons, but intellectual and spiritual ones. We must engage the terrorists in the battle for hearts and minds, convincing people everywhere that freedom is a better way of life for them and their children.”
Put another way, our job is to refute the cynical premise that links al-Qaida and friends with every other tyrannical force the world has seen. Their thinking goes something like this:
“People of all ages are like children. They can’t handle freedom. Allow them liberty, and they will abuse it. Give them license, and they will go too far. Let them be self-governing, and they will make a mess of their lives. The result will be anarchy, chaos, decadence, degradation and, ultimately, destruction of society.”
In other words, the key is to show the world that the terrorist narrative about freedom is wrong. It is to demonstrate how the American experiment in freedom leads to responsible behavior and to the kind of society most people want for themselves and their loved ones.
In vital ways, we have done that repeatedly and remarkably. Freedom has inspired untold feats of ingenuity and creativity, making our country the premier economic and technological power on the planet. Freedom has unleashed numerous acts of magnanimity, revealing Americans to be among the world’s most generous people toward the poor and needy. And to an impressive extent, the freedom to sink or swim in life has not led to irresponsible conduct. The reason is obvious once we think about it. If we are free to fail as well as succeed, we will develop a healthy respect for risk. Although we are free to take our life’s savings to Las Vegas and spend it on gambling, most of us are sensible enough not to exercise our liberty in that way.
If that were the end of the story, ours would be a flawless model of the benefits of freedom. Unfortunately, it is not; there is more to the story. In a number of ways, how we use our freedom sometimes sends a distorted message to the people we are hoping to persuade.
Today, for example, America is exporting sex and violence and the seamy sides of pop culture in a big way. It is reigniting its childish, Woodstock-era obsession with marijuana. Parts of our culture worship youth and view the elderly — and becoming elderly — with dread and disdain. Political correctness continues to promote and even celebrate unwed motherhood. And American elites are eagerly pushing the country to do what no prior civilization has ever done — redefining marriage, humanity’s foundational institution, while marginalizing those who dare to urge caution.
To be sure, popular or politically correct culture does not automatically dictate how Americans think or live. In many instances, it is a misshapen, Hollywood-driven, media-managed image that is unrecognizable to most communities.
But the problem is that for some people around the world, this image is America’s public face.
Make no mistake: Freedom is America’s great gift and calling to the world. As we remember 9/11, we should hold our banner high by exercising our freedom with dignity and responsibility, so that the world will continue to seek liberty and not flee from it, emulating us at our best.
Richard Kelly is a writer based in Tampa.