Land of the free, home of the brave?


There’s a moment in one of my favorite movies when two brothers realize that their dreams of the easy life have gone horribly awry.

In A Simple Plan, a cautionary tale about greed, Bill Paxton (as Hank) and Billy Bob Thornton (as brother Jacob) accidentally stumble upon the site of a plane crash. Inside is a dead pilot, and a great deal of money.

Jacob tells Hank that all he wants to do with his share of found money (that they’ve not yet divvied up) is to fix up their parents’ old home and sit on the front porch with Hank on a summer night, drinking beer and sharing old stories. So far, things have not gone according to plan, and, in a pivotal scene, Hank tells Jake that their charade must continue: You want to sit on the front porch and drink beer? Well, this is what it takes!

I think about that as I worry about life in the United States.

Today, it seems that lifelong Americans have ditched the pioneer spirit of their forefathers that made our country what it is. If there’s any intrepidness left, it’s mostly seen in new immigrants who have fully embraced the notion that a person can be free and do great things here. Many of these newcomers have overcome high hurdles to get here in the first place — as did the first settlers — and they’re willing to take the gamble to achieve the American dream.

The rest of us have mixed emotions about safety and freedom: We’re a careless — yet overly careful — people.

We’re in a hurry, so we dart in and out of lanes on the interstate at high speed. But we shrug our shoulders when county governments say they can’t afford to put seat belts into school buses: We’re taxed enough already.

We willingly give our ZIP codes to sales clerks who request them. We order tablecloths and sweatshirts over the Internet because it’s easier that way. Our blogs and thoughts are offered up to anyone who may be interested. But we question the need to spend the money it takes to hire a lifeguard at a swimming pool or to provide the oversight necessary for safe vehicles and food. And, if it snows — just one flake — we close the schools to protect the same precious children whom we will not secure with safety belts on school buses.

We accept that “it” simply isn’t safe out there, so we willingly submit to full-body scans and take off our shoes before boarding an airplane. We either shut down or force patrons to sign release forms before undertaking activities that have any remote possibility for danger.

We say we want to be safe. Because of that, and because of 9/11 and the threat of terrorism — very real, I’ll admit — we willingly give up our privacy and our freedoms for the sake of “security.”

When excess in government surveillance is pointed out to us, we say, “Well, I have nothing to hide, so I don’t care if ‘they’ listen in on my phone calls.” Or: “They’ll be very bored if they monitor my emails.” We forget that such things used to require a warrant. We overlook that “nothing to hide” isn’t exactly the point.

We walk under cameras as we enter buildings; we are filmed as we amble down the street or finish running a marathon. We listen to messages on the phone from businesses that say, “This call may be monitored for ‘your safety’”

We don’t blink an eye, unless we learn that the IRS may be targeting our political allies with audits.

We trust that the relatively new Homeland Security is keeping us, well, secure, rather than spying on us for no particular reason. We beef up the National Security Agency, even though other large governmental entities could handle keeping us relatively safe — even if they have sometimes been unwilling to work together.

FBI, CIA, anyone?

We say we can’t, or shouldn’t, afford the costs associated with “entitlements,” or to give teachers a raise, but we’re more than willing to pay for a governmental entity that could have us interrogated or placed on a list of potential terrorists if we were to innocently say in exasperation: “I could just kill Obama for doing that!”

We move from inner cities, because they’re dangerous. The public schools aren’t safe; they’re dysfunctional and their buildings are old. We’re afraid to walk the dog after midnight. And we don’t want to encounter someone quite different from ourselves between the restaurant and the car.

So we live in a gated community where we can be safe. Cameras are installed at the entrances of high-rise condominiums. We hire private security guards. We buy guns.

We say that efforts by the NSA have prevented many acts of terrorism — and take this claim at face value — yet three people are killed and scores more injured in Boston in April.

We claim that we must trust government to do the right thing with the metadata they’re collecting, yet we say our president hasn’t told the truth about Benghazi and we complain that Congress refuses to govern.

We’d like to be free, but we prefer to be safe.

We’re trusting, and yet we’re not.

We say that to preserve our freedom, security measures are required.

I say, if we truly live in the land of the free and the home of the brave, we might want to reconsider that thinking. If we want to be free, truly free, then a 100 percent guarantee of safety cannot, and should not, be what it costs.

Some of us will live long lives. Some of us will have accidents. Some of us will die before our time. We will be mourned, and perhaps a nation will grieve.

We must learn to accept that we may not all die in bed at a ripe old age. Security is not the simple plan that it seems.

To live in a free country, this is what it takes.

Karen Owen is Viewpoints editor of The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va.

© 2013, The Free Lance-Star

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