A Case For The Defense

by Aleksandra Priestfield

December 16, 2002


Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury,

You will note that I do not address the judges. There are no judges in this case. You are the judges; you always have been.

I want you to think on something -- and on the face of it the question I am asking you is a very simple one.

What does it mean to be free?

I've been thinking about freedom a lot lately. I have been forced into that arena by people whose definition of freedom means being free to do what they wish, even if their actions affect my own life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

Freedom has always been a relative term. You can only know that you are free -- or not free -- when you compare yourself to someone else. If you see another man who is a slave, you are 'freer' than he is. If another man treats you as a slave, he is 'freer' than you are.

Is there a fundamental difference between knowing/believing that one is free, and actually being free? If slavery were abolished tomorrow (and no, Ladies and Gentlemen, it has not been abolished to date, it has merely changed shape and form...) would we all then become 'free' by definition? And what would we do with our freedom? Does having some of us as slaves set others of us free, and is it frankly impossible for anyone to be free if there is nothing to gauge freedom against? Is there a black without the white?

What are the building blocks of freedom?

One of them is responsibility.

Surely, you will agree, you are more free when you have fewer responsibilities. The more responsibilities you have, the less freedom you can experience because you have to act in ways that will help you meet those responsibilities. I have known 'free men' living in 'free countries', whose ulcer-generating 12-hour-a-day jobs made them into slaves far worse off than those openly bought and sold at auction. These are people who are free to buy the latest electronic gadgets, or to take fabulous vacations in exotic locations... who have no time to enjoy either their toys or their holidays.

If we choose, we are free. If someone else chooses for us and enforces that choice, we are slaves. But if we force ourselves to unwillingly accept responsibilities under duress, we are enforcing that choice upon ourselves -- does this imply there is such a thing as self-enslavement? You may argue that any responsibility laid on you is a kind of enslavement. But who is slave and who master if the person laying them on you is yourself...?

But is it just a question of responsibility, or does it circle back to the notion of Free Will?

The holy books tell us that God created the concept of Free Will. The notion of good and evil had to be instilled into God's supreme creation, Man, by the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, of course -- but, without that notion, how was the concept of Free Will ever to have been exercised? Or is Free Will, in its first unexpurgated edition, merely the freedom to worship God -- because the first Man and Woman were essentially ignorant of all else?

Some of the worst wars in the history of the human race have been fought in the name of God, Ladies and Gentlemen. Most of you know this from history books, or from the TV news.

But think of this -- we have met the enemy, and he is us. Our Hell is inflicted on us not by demons, but by other human beings just like ourselves, only with different beliefs. Is it possible for different contexts of freedom to coexist? Or does our 'freedom' mean no more than the innate responsibility of taking everyone else's freedom, and twisting it, and making it odious to those who originally owned it in the process of making it more palatable to ourselves? An old adage comes to mind -- Your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. Where, Ladies and Gentlemen, does our freedom to swing a fist end? Where does our fellow Man's nose begin?

Think a little deeper on the concept of Free Will, in terms most familiar to those of us who grew up in a Judeo-Christian world.

There is Free Will, but there is also the Will of God. Those who do the Will of God are called saints. Yet Judas Iscariot did the Will of God by betraying the Christ to his murderers. Without Judas, the Christian religion as we know it would not exist. Is it therefore possible for a betrayal with profoundly selfish roots to be the Will of God -- a betrayal whose fruit was the faith supposedly built on charity, honor, turning the other cheek?

Take it deeper.

Did Lucifer, God's Brightest Angel, have Free Will? If so, and he chose not to follow the Will of God, how was this a sin? God made everything. Therefore God made Lucifer. Does the act of creation give the creator the right to claim absolute obedience? If so, how do we reconcile this with the problematic concept of Free Will? Is that the fundamental freedom, the notion on which all else is built?

Is there in fact a notional state of being free? Or is the abstract concept of freedom a mirage? Does a man who loses his job in a corporate world and goes on to become a successful entrepreneur gain or lose freedom? On the one hand, he had the responsibility to his employer (even if those responsibilities made him upset or angry) but he also had the freedom of a monthly paycheck and the security which that gave him. On the other hand, he has gained the freedom to be responsible to nobody but himself -- but the world does not owe him a living for it.

Are there, then, different kinds of freedom? Moral freedom? Economic freedom? Freedom of thought, or of action? Is one kind of freedom more important than another? And which kind of freedom is most important to pursue, and to defend?

In a nutshell, without the security of some economic backup -- a roof over one's head, food on the table -- freedom is a luxury few can afford. People will fight to get that prerequisite to freedom. People who are never hungry will not fight for food. People who are never cold will not fight for warmth. There would be less of a base of support for the modern Palestinians if their children were not terrorized; the Jews would fight less doggedly for their right to exist if that right hadn't been fundamentally threatened in times past.

The dictator who feeds the people is more acclaimed (if feared) than the benevolent man who talks of ephemera while children starve in the ghettos. At least in the short term. And a home-grown dictator is almost always preferable to a foreign-sponsored ideologue.

The current idea of 'liberty' as espoused by the West is a selfish one. American forces bombed Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, often on pretexts so fragile that a breath of truth would have blown them away like cobwebs. The attitude of the majority of the American people on these actions, with no news sources other than officially sanctioned and whitewashed king-and-country propaganda, crystallized into "Better their civilians than our civilians." The fact that the same dictum could be applied in reverse by any other culture on the planet is not even considered. It's quite simply 'terrorism' when American civilians are the target, and anything but when it's the American forces targeting others.

Nothing happens in a vacuum, of course, and while the actual physical events of September 2001 in New York City were tragic and eminently indefensible -- it is just as tragic that neither the past nor the future of those events are deemed to be worthy of consideration. It was understandable that, in the first few painful months of aftermath, people just wanted to lick their wounds -- but it is unbelievable that it is now practically treason to question the roots of what has become known as 9/11, to the extent that almost a year after the tragedy no real answers have been provided. None, that is, except an increasingly tight noose of 'security measures,' often involving frisking 80-year-old grandmothers at America's airports or confiscating knitting needles or nail clippers at the door of the aircraft as incarnations of deadly weapons (while thoughtfully providing passengers with the forks and knives with which to eat their in-flight meals). In the end, it is all window dressing -- and it is possible that the only result of the new American obsession with security could be new and improved kinds of attack.

At the same time as it continues asking 'Why do they hate us so much?', the United States continues to be engaged in questionable foreign policy -- in the Middle East, in the Balkans -- justified in the name of 'defending freedom.' Whose freedom, Ladies and Gentlemen? How can we presume to understand or defend the freedom of another culture? Or is that that we simply mean to impose our own (and, naturally, superior) version?

When does "defending freedom" become the enslavement of other nations and peoples to values not their own, under leaders unchosen by them?

What is freedom? Are you willing to die, or sacrifice someone you hold dear, for the idea that only a certain kind of freedom is worth killing or dying for? Is one kind of 'liberty' inherently better than another? And who is to judge? Is it possible for different cultures to accept and honor one another's differences instead of going to war over them? Are you willing to face the possibility that the means used to 'defend' freedom and enhance security may result in the loss of the very precepts you claim to be guarding?

Or is it impossible for a human being to feel free until he sees another human being who is in chains...?

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are all the jury. There are no learned judges here, nobody to bang a gavel and make a decree. There are only questions we must each answer for ourselves.

What we do with our freedom today defines the chains we will be wearing tomorrow. Our freedom, as always, is in our hands.

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Aleksandra Priestfield is a writer and an editor. She contributes her regular columns to Swans.

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Published December 16, 2002
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