Sunday, September 11, 2011

Gene Policinski: Putting 9/11 fear aside in favor of freedom

  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in March 1933 — speaking in his first inaugural address to a desperate and fearful nation wracked by the Great Depression.

  Those same words, which perhaps would be sent today as a tweet from, translate well to today’s war on terror as we mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001.

  Fear has been called the terrorists’ greatest weapon, with the power to turn neighbor against long-time neighbor; to prompt cowardly, middle-of-the-night bomb threats to a Murfreesboro mosque; and to spark unprecedented intrusions on some of our civil rights in the name of safety and security.

  Add one more effect: Fear can cause Americans to abandon, at least for a time, their support for the very core freedoms that define what it is to be an American.

  The State of the First Amendment annual survey, conducted since 1997 by the First Amendment Center, asks Americans about the five freedoms set out in the amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.

  The responses to the first question, “Can you name those freedoms?” disappoints year after year, with no more than 6% able to name all five — petition being the least-often identified each year. But in the occasional years when we name the freedoms and ask people specifically about them, each gets overwhelming support as “necessary.” That’s the good news — the “pre-fear” news.

  To another question asked each year — “Does the First Amendment go too far in the rights it guarantees?” — the “yes” responses usually hover in the 20-25% range. Ouch. That one in four or five of us would put limits on freedoms we’ve held for 220 years is disturbing enough. But in some some years, frankly, that disaffection seems largely driven by excesses or errors by the free press — for example, the mistakes in early reporting of the Bush-Gore election results in 2000.

  But a deeper-seated fear seems the only reason that in polling done in May 2002, eight months after the 9/11 attacks, nearly half of Americans — 49% — said at that moment we had too much freedom.

  As fear of imminent attack has ebbed since 9/11, so has the willingness to part with our freedoms. The “yes” answers to the “go too far” question have dropped fairly steadily since 2002, running at or below 20% for four straight years.

  But those results are cold comfort in an era that will be remembered, in part, for color-coded warnings, shoe-bombs and even the fear of retaliation for the killing of the best-known fearmonger, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

  Do the lower numbers of people questioning the First Amendment’s 45 words represent a rebirth of support for our freedoms to express ourselves, to worship as we will and to challenge government for change? Or are they a kind of conditional approval, subject to being thrown overboard again, in a nation that has grown used to incursions on other parts of the Bill of Rights in the name of homeland security?

  Here’s another “FDR tweet” as we reflect on the meaning and effects of 9/11 on our First Amendment freedoms. It is the rest of the sentence about “fear itself,” less oft-cited words. Roosevelt went on to condemn “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

  Let us hope that this nation does not again become paralyzed by “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” and again retreat from a commitment that dates to Dec. 15, 1791, when the First Amendment and the other nine amendments of the Bill of Rights were ratified.

  When terrorists again seize the headlines with a deadly attack, as we are told they surely one day will, let’s hope we are guided by our nation’s Founders — no strangers to real dangers themselves.

  Centuries ago, they put their faith, and staked their future and ours, on a nation that puts Fear aside in favor of Freedom.

  About the author: Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, is a veteran journalist whose career has included work in newspapers, radio, television and online.

  This article was published by the First Amendment Center.

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