Monday, February 7, 2000

Week of 02/07/2000

When The Price Is Freedom
- by David Matthews 2

There is an old saying concerning purchases that if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it. If you ever get the chance to visit some of the more expensive stores in cities like Atlanta or New York you’d know exactly why that saying is all too true. There are some beautiful things up for sale, but only to people for whom money is no object. The kind of people who saunter down the isles like Rodney Dangerfield in "Caddyshack" saying "I’d like one of these, two dozen of those, five or six of that, and whatever else you want."

That saying is not just limited to purchases, though.

Complain as I can about the two dominant parties in the American political system, the one thing that Americans have not had to worry about is coalition-formed bodies taking dominance in government. The zero-sum policies to exclude third party groups from gaining any kind of ground in Congress can be both thanked and blamed for that. The last time such a wildly diverse group got together to decide the direction for the nation, it was the electoral college in 1860, which ended up electing Abraham Lincoln president.

However, such coalition-building is commonplace in many other legislative bodies around the world. Wildly diverse groups end up selling their political souls for a slice of power on a regular basis. In these countries, the key word in politics is not "sucking up" but rather "let’s make a deal".

In Austria, one such deal-making has allowed a rather controversial political group to gain a voice in the legislature. This group is called the Freedom Party, and at the heart of this group is the source of the controversy - the Freedom Party’s leader Joerg Haider.

What has attracted the Freedom Party much scorn has been Haider’s past comments concerning Austria’s participation in World War II as an annexed part of Nazi Germany. Unlike countries like France and Poland, which opposed Adolph Hitler’s National Socialist Party, some Austrians joined Hitler’s forces and served as members of the Waffen SS. Haider believed that those Austrians who ended up serving Hitler were also victims of the Nazi atrocities which led to the imprisonment, torment, and outright murder of millions. He even commented about some of the things Hitler did to impose order, which he deemed to be benefits.

Even though Haider has attempted to expand on those past statements to show how he himself condemned the atrocities of Nazi Germany, world groups still took offense to what he had said. The European Union, the new continental body of government there, is moving to punish Austria for even allowing Haider’s Freedom Party to gain a dominant voice in government.

Even President Clinton has ordered the recall of our ambassador there in support of the condemnation by the EU. Of course, I’m still waiting for some newspaper to run the headline "CLINTON OPPOSES FREEDOM PARTY." I won’t hold my breath, though.

Now let’s get brutally honest here… take away the Nazi elements of Haider’s past statements and what do you get? Comments about an orderly society, swift in punishment, and praise for their veterans. Comments that would make any politician proud to utter.

Most people like to have some semblance of order in their world. They’d like to know that things are going well, that criminals would be punished, and that they can feel safe and secure wherever they go.

What many people forget, though, is that such safety and security comes with a price tag on it. It doesn’t come for free. Safety and security often comes as part of a package deal, much like a cheap toy in the McDonald’s Happy Meal box. If you want the prize, you gotta buy the meal. If you want safety and security and order in the world, you have to take the political plan offered to you and pay the price they demand for it.

To some people, price is no object. Safety and security are far more important to them, and they would pay any price to get it. They would take whatever political package is offered to them as long as they get their safety and security.

That’s why there are still people today who talk about the good things Nazi Germany had. That’s why there are still people in Russia who yearn for the old days of the Soviet Union. That’s why there are still people who talk about Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, and how he was able to get the trains to run on time. To them, the price of such social control was not a problem.

And what is the price our politicians ask for such social control? Quite often, that price is freedom. The freedom to decide for ourselves how to live our lives.

Take driving. We’d like to get to our destination as fast as we could, because more often that naught, driving is annoying. But we also like to get there safely, and with our car intact. So we’re told if we want that, we have to accept some limits on how fast we drive. That’s the general basis for speed limits on all public roads - to protect the safety of all drivers. That’s the price we have to pay - the limit on our freedom to drive as fast as we want to.

Quite often, though, the freedom people are willing to give up is not necessarily their own freedom, but rather the freedom of others.

Case in point can be found in a recent article in MSNBC about credit card thieves operating in Internet chat rooms. The reporter of this article quite frequently made mention that Internet chat rooms are open because of the First Amendment, and implied that somehow law enforcement should access such chat rooms, as if they were somehow barred from doing so. What was more disturbing was the MSNBC poll that was placed on the page of the article which asked people whether or not they wanted law enforcement to monitor all chat rooms. More than half of the people who took part in that poll said yes, they’d be willing to. Free speech be damned, according to these people, they want their safety and security!

Of course, it’s easy to relegate freedom away, especially if the freedom that is given up is not one you yourself enjoy. That’s why most Germans didn’t care what happened to the people who were persecuted when Hitler was in power. It didn’t affect them personally. It was only after the full price tag was shown - when the full extent of the Holocaust was exposed - did people realize the cost was way to high for anyone to accept.

That’s why the mere inference of praise towards anything associated with Nazi Germany is met with such hostility. It reminds people that at one point in their lives they were willing to sacrifice a whole segment of their own countrymen for their own sense of safety and security.

And yet, somewhere in the back of the minds of certain people is the knowledge that they would be willing to make a similar deal again. All one has to do is look at places like Bosnia and Kosovo to know that such a deal could be made despite our own assurances that it wouldn’t.

Well, we need to remind ourselves that every time some politician offers us safety and security it always comes with a price tag, and while we may not think that the cost won’t affect us, at some point it will. Too often, we don’t realize it until after the damage has been done, and we can see the full scope of the price that has been paid.

If we truly wish to prevent another Holocaust, it’s not enough to simply say "never again." Abusive spouses tell themselves that as well, but they keep on abusing. We have to ask ourselves what that political price tag says, and we need to ask ourselves whether or not such a price is worth it BEFORE any damage can be made.

And when the price is freedom, what our politicians are asking for is way too expensive.

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