The military can protect our borders. It cannot protect our freedom. The greatest threat to our democracy is not an enemy amassing along our borders or terrorists lurking in our midst. The greatest threat to our democracy is our willingness to let it go.
Protecting our borders is important. Within our borders are our homes, our jobs, and our children. Within our borders are natural wonders and means of production. Within our borders we practice our faith, celebrate our traditions, and raise our families. But protecting our borders is not the same as guarding our freedom.
Freedom isn’t license to do or say whatever we want, no holds barred, uninhibited by the potential consequences to ourselves or others. Freedom depends on our capacity for civil discourse, respectful disagreement, and informed debate. It depends on our willingness to be engaged and not merely to react; to be involved and not manipulated. Freedom is our ability to govern ourselves without giving over that responsibility to a tyrant or a bully.
“Freedom isn’t free,” shout bumper stickers. It’s not free. To be free we must bear uncertainty, complexity and nuance. To be free we must be willing to protect the rights of others to think differently than we do. To be free we must diligently keep watch over our elected leaders and hold them accountable.
We depend on a free press to relay the news, and not just report the sensational things that people say. We depend on our religious institutions to give people the vision of what is possible and a sense of the deep connectedness of all people – that what’s in my poor neighbor’s best interest is in my interest as well. We depend on our educational system to equip us to think deeply about difficult issues.
Our democracy is more than the white marble buildings that house our institutions and more than the people with American flag pins that staff our government. Our democracy is more than the piece of parchment with calligraphy. Our democracy is the people who vote, march, write letters to the editor and public officials, and who run for local office.
Our military can’t make qualified people run for office, or equip the electorate to tell the difference between a statesman and a clown. Our military can’t protect us from our acceptance of sexy sound bites as gospel truth. Our military cannot protect us from our unexamined bigotries and untested biases. Tyrannies are kept in place by militaries. The militaries of Hitler and Mussolini did not bring freedom. There is a military in North Korea, China and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I am grateful to the men and women of the armed services who protect our borders and our interests. May we create a nation worthy of their sacrifice.