The Most Essential of the Human Freedoms
By Al Markowitz
“Everything can be taken from us but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor Frankl
I tend to comment a lot on Pilotonline, the online version of our local paper. For me, it is my morning mental and writing calisthenics, but also, it serves a vital function: a public forum where ideas and opinions on the topics of our time can be openly discussed. It is free but because most of us work for others, many people are afraid to post, or post under assumed names for fear of repercussions. I can certainly understand this, having lost jobs for speaking out on issues in ways unrelated to employers, including my last job in 2008, ostensibly for “speaking out against the war” online.
This brings to mind the recent firing of Norfolk’s 911 dispatcher Jessica Camarillo for posting a particularly ugly comment on Facebook regarding the unfortunate killing of a young man by Norfolk Police while he was allegedly attempting to cash a stolen check. Her comment, suggesting the family be charged for the bullets, was certainly in poor taste, but should she have been fired? How does the fear of workplace repression with widely published examples like this affect your freedom to express opinions publicly? As the dictatorial setting of the workplace reaches beyond the workplace itself, this also opens up a root question: can you really be free if you live in fear of exercising that freedom?
More and more we are living in a society where our associations and opinions are monitored. Employers search Facebook and Google potential and present employees. And the government, as we are learning thanks to Edward Snowdon, is increasingly monitoring our every conversation, location, purchase and association.
My summer reading has further caused me to consider the implications of this on the state of our liberty and the health of our society. I have been reading Hannah Arendt, the mid-century philosopher and holocaust survivor most famous for her coverage of the Eichmann trial and her coining of the term, the banality of evil. In reporting on that trial from Jerusalem, what struck her was that Eichmann was not the monster she had expected. He was a bureaucrat who had abandoned any thought or opinion of his own and strove to do his job the best that he could. He had taken an oath of loyalty to his government and that was that. He was a career minded military man who was otherwise normal. She wrote, “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” She added that he had given up the option of even considering moral principles or of taking responsibility for his own decisions and actions, the very thing which makes us human, and instead had become an accomplice, even a leader, in the greatest crime in history. An important and uncomfortably relevant film on Arendt’s coverage of that famous trial, called “Hannah Arendt” will be showing at the NARO cinema on the 4th of September. It is a thought provoking film I highly recommend.
How is the unquestioning loyalty and job focus of Eichmann really different from the fellow operating the drone, working in a munitions plant, mining fossil fuels, participating in missile launches from a ship, the JSOC commando carrying out assassinations, or the many bureaucrats and support workers that keep an ever-growing national security state functioning? This seems especially relevant in our military dependent area. Aren’t we responsible as individuals for everything we participate in? That seems to be the judgment of the Nuremberg tribunals as well as the Eichmann trial.
In her book, “Between Past and Future,” Arendt writes about the vital importance of truth and of truth tellers. In examining what we mean by Truth, she distinguishes “rational truth” from “factual truth” The former being that which is undeniable like geometry, and the latter being historical facts and scientific findings. She focuses on the factual truth which is often contentious due to its implications and challenges to power and wealth. She writes, “The chances of factual truth surviving the onslaught of power are very slim indeed . . . factual truth, if it happens to oppose a given group’s profit or pleasure, is greeted today with more hostility than ever.” Interestingly, this was penned in the 1950s. She also states that the opposite of factual truth is of course, a lie. She writes, “…a liar, lacking the power to make his falsehood stick, does not insist on the gospel truth of his statement but pretends that this is his opinion.” Thus, those whose interests are threatened by factual truth, often present that truth as merely an opinion. Think of examples like the dangers of tobacco, or Global Warming, or Evolution. We even do this with the ultimate but threatening truth of death, creating hoped for afterlife alternatives that give us comfort by rendering our certain end an opinion.
More important is the necessity of public communication in the search for Truth. Emmanuel Kant addressed this, stating that, “The external power that deprives man of his freedom to communicate his thoughts publicly, deprives him at the same time of his freedom to think.” We think in community. We need to check the thoughts in our head with that of others to make them valid. This sharing of information is especially vital in a representative republic where opinions become votes. An uninformed and cowed citizenry is an easily manipulable mass, barely meeting the definition of “citizen.”
This brings me back to the Pilotonline forum and the voiced intent of the paper to further limit posting privileges by eliminating the protection of anonymity, which allows working people to participate in the public conversation without fear. I expressed my objection of this to Editorial Page editor Donald Luzzato, pointing out that the only people brave enough to post opinions under their real name were business owners, retirees and those with nothing left to lose. He disagreed, but no doubt knows the limits of what he himself can say in order to maintain his position.
In the larger world, we are seeing record levels of citizen surveillance, attacks on truth tellers, and on the Press in order to suppress factual truths our government finds threatening. In a recent ruling from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Obama administration won a stunning blow against Press freedom. As reported in The Guardian, “the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled on the case of New York Times reporter James Risen, delivered a blow to investigative journalism in America by ruling that reporters have no First Amendment protection that would safeguard the confidentiality of their sources in the event of a criminal trial.” In the trial of Bradley Manning, the charge of “aiding the enemy” had repercussions for those exposing information that might be vital for citizens to be aware of. The Pentagon Papers would be a good example as would exposure of lies to justify war. Fortunately Manning was found innocent of that charge. If the Press fears reporting anything not approved, is it still a “free press?”
Arendt points out, we may not even want to consider if life would be worth living in a world devoid of justice or freedom and that, “these are not possible with the seemingly less political idea of Truth. What is at stake is survival and no human world will ever be able to survive without people willing to say what is.” Throughout history, truth seekers and truth tellers have been ridiculed, tortured and killed and our own time is no exception. Bradley Manning and Eric Snowden are prime examples of this and they are not alone. Abdulrahman Haider Shiah, a Yemeni journalist who reported on the U.S missile attack that killed 40 Bedouin women and children in Al Majala, Yemen, was held in prison on a direct order from President Obama. His life is still in danger. Truth telling journalists like Jeremy Scahill, Glenn Greenwald and Chris Hedges are sidelined slandered or threatened for their efforts in exposing truths most Americans never about.
Activists beyond the world of journalism also take risks, refusing to be like Eichmann, an unthinking cog abetting a larger crime. Brandon Toy, an Iraq veteran and defense contractor working for General Dynamics as an Engineering Project Manager building Stryker armored fighting vehicles recently wrote a formal letter of resignation. He wrote, “I hereby resign in protest effective immediately.
I have served the post-911 Military Industrial complex for 10 years, first as a soldier in Baghdad, and now as a defense contractor.
“At the time of my enlistment, I believed in the cause. I was ignorant, naïve, and misled. The narrative, professed by the state, and echoed by the mainstream press, has proven false and criminal. We have become what I thought we were fighting against.
“Recent revelations by fearless journalists of war crimes including counterinsurgency “dirty” wars, drone terrorism, the suspension of due process, torture, mass surveillance, and widespread regulatory capture have shed light on the true nature of the current US Government. I encourage you to read more about these topics.
“Some will say that I am being irresponsible, impractical, and irrational. Others will insist that I am crazy. I have come to believe that the true insanity is doing nothing. As long as we sit in comfort, turning a blind eye to the injustices of the world, nothing will change. It is even worse to play an active part, protesting all along that I am not the true criminal.
“I was only a foot soldier, and am now a low level clerk. However, I have always believed that if every foot soldier threw down his rifle war would end. I hereby throw mine down.”
Mr. Toy, unlike Eichmann, reserved his right to choose, to make moral decisions; in short, to maintain his integrity and his humanity. Others, like the Catholic Plowshares activists practice non-violent civil disobedience to bring attention to crimes perpetrated in our names. Greg Bortje-Obed, Sister Megan Rice and Michael Walli are facing 35 years in prison for the Transform Now Plowshares action. This symbolic disarmament took place at the Oak Ridge Y-12 plant, where they managed, unimpeded, to get to the building where all of our nation’s highly enriched weapons grade uranium for nuclear warheads is stored. They hammered on the building’s cornerstone – nuclear weapons are the cornerstone of the US empire – and splashed their blood on it, graphically depicting the end result of the production and use of such weapons. They did this to demonstrate the immorality and danger of nuclear weapons and to voice opposition. They are charged with “sabotage” for their actions. Our local Catholic Worker activist, Steve Baggarly, has participated in similar actions and has spent years in prison, voluntarily sacrificing himself to express his objection to militarism, war and empire and to bring attention to it.
He and many others regularly protest at the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning Georgia where Latin American soldiers are taught brutal practices of repression and torture. Father Roy Bourgois has been leading this effort for years and will be in town to speak about it on September 21at Virginia Wesleyan College at 2:00 PM in the Monumental Chapel as part of the One Love Festival.
All of us make choices and have to balance our personal values with our need to make a living. In this effort we are subject to many pressures. Our ability to make those decisions is dependent on what we know and on how that shapes our beliefs. This requires access to Truth, for as Voltaire famously said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” History is replete with examples, as is the present. If we are to reclaim an open society and truly defend our freedom we must insist on the freedom to think, the freedom to speak, the freedom to know, and the freedom to choose.