Liberty is a risky concept. That’s a truth we’re particularly aware of here in the United States.
The right to free speech is a wonderful thing. For hundreds of years it’s given countless people the ability to advocate for causes they believe to be right and voice opinions often unappreciated by the mainstream. No matter the unpopularity of their convictions, Americans can take the comfort that their words are protected by our most precious founding document.
Sure, but the right to free speech also enables others to be vocal proponents of some pretty terrible things. Exhibit A: Westboro Baptist Church protestors. Yes, the First Amendment to the Constitution empowered abolitionists and civil rights activists, but it also gives a bunch of bigoted yahoos the right to picket funerals, shout at mourners, and brandish signs that say atrocious things like “God Hates Fags” and “Pray for More Dead Soldiers.”
The right to bear arms is another American perk. The ability to purchase guns has wide-ranging benefits, from duck hunting to home protection. But sadly, as we saw in Orlando, it also afforded a lunatic the opportunity to get his hands on powerful firearms with the explicit purpose of going on a deadly shooting rampage at a gay nightclub.
Being able to freely worship the god(s) of your own choosing is something few people—if we’re using the sum of human history as our gauge—have enjoyed, and millions of immigrants have come to this country to exercise that right. Yet religious accommodation also makes the fight against radical Islam even trickier. Just ask anyone charged with safeguarding the American homeland who has to straddle the line between profiling and protecting.
What makes liberty so dangerous is the fact that humans are flawed creatures. There is good in humanity, but connected to virtue there is also much bad. Light side, dark side; yin and yang. That makes freedom an inherent gamble, a high-risk proposition, but also, as the overall arc of our history has demonstrated, a high-reward one, too.
Our founders believed it was worth the risk to unshackle inalienable rights. Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem, as Thomas Jefferson liked to quote. Translated one way, it means “I prefer the tumult of liberty to the quiet of servitude.”
Over the years, the freedom bet made at our founding has paid out rich rewards. It has spurred innovation, power, and wealth previously unimagined. It has inspired other nations to follow suit, while luring waves of immigrants to our own shores. Yes, it’s been an imperfect journey. Yes again, it continues to be fraught with peril. But we are the inheritors of a grand experiment—an (almost) 240-year-old living, breathing research project. And like every generation since 1776, we arrive at numerous impasses where we are faced with the decision, “Are the risks worth the rewards?”
That question in and of itself reveals the greatest danger (an ironic one) to our freedoms: those entrusted with liberty have the capacity to choke liberty out. This can be achieved through sweeping policy changes, or, as is often preferred, in bits and pieces, through small legislative tweaks here and glanced-over regulations there.
A gradual self-strangulation.
In the wake of tragedy lies the greatest opportunity to roll liberty back, for in those painful moments the uncertainty of autonomy seems to outweigh its benefits. Here the long view is needed more than ever—an appreciation for the achievements of freedom, and a realization that once they are given up, they rarely come back.