An Open Book: Give Me Liberty…

Los Alamos

Although everyone calls my country of birth by the shortened name of Uruguay, the formal name is “Republica Oriental del Uruguay”, roughly analogous with how we typically say America, when we really meant “United States of America.”

The long name is formally translated in English as “Eastern Republic of Uruguay,” but this is not quite correct; it should be “Republic to the East of the Uruguay (river)”. Now you know why everyone calls it Uruguay.

I got to thinking about this awkward translation when I was researching the famous conclusion to a stirring Patrick Henry address that galvanized colonial Virginia to join the American Revolution, “Give me Liberty, or Give me Death!” In this case, Uruguayans have Americans beat because their analogous quote is prominently featured in the national anthem and translates to “The Fatherland or the Tomb, Liberty, or to our Deaths in Glory!” While not as succinct, it really gets the heart pumping, doesn’t it?

Patrick Henry was making a non-negotiable statement. The new American experiment would be founded on the fundamental right to individual liberty, of course with the notable exception at the time of slaves, Native Americans, indentured servants, women and children laborers, but that’s fodder for another column.

Patrick Henry argued that anything less than liberty merited the ultimate sacrifice, but lets pull on this thread a little bit. Would it be fair to say that equality is also a non-negotiable requirement? All Americans are equal under the Constitution, with similar caveats that moderate our right to liberty.

All Americans have the right to practice their religion as they see fit, have a right to be considered innocent until proven guilty, have a right to privacy, have a right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, all of which are extensions but not necessarily equivalent to liberty. Which of these rights are fundamental to our democracy and non-negotiable?

There are many instances in history when a country gave up some or all of these rights for the sake of personal safety. I can point again to my birthplace as one such example. In the late 1960’s, a terrorist group called the Tupamaros, were wreaking havoc in the capital city of Montevideo. They kidnapped prominent people, and sometimes ransomed or killed them. They would rob banks, kill policemen, even burst into a classroom and force the professor at gunpoint to recite some communist manifesto.

Eventually, the military took over, suspended Parliament, and ruthlessly put down the Tupamaros. After 10 years of dictatorial rule, where most of the rights listed above were suspended, the military itself was discredited, and democracy returned in 1984, and it has reigned ever since, including the popular election of a former Tupamaro leader as president of the country.

It is at dangerous times like these that our search for personal safety collides with our respect for fundamental rights. I would like to think that America is immune from the path that Uruguay took in its moment of desperation, but America has taken steps at times of danger that in retrospect seem totally inconsistent with our values. From the Aliens and Sedition Act to the internment of Japanese-Americans, examples abound of draconian undemocratic measures taken by us during times of danger.

It is natural when we are faced with a ruthless enemy like ISIS to seek to swing the pendulum of democracy and liberty toward stronger government power and control, but perhaps we should step back and think more carefully about what it is that we seek to protect, namely not only our life, but our way of life.

I believe the strength of America comes not only from her ability to protect the lives of her citizens but from an indomitable defense of the liberties of those same citizens. Guilty until proven innocent would certainly keep some of us safer, but at what other expense? Blanket surveillance of some religious denominations might make us safer, but which organizations are next?

I wonder what Patrick Henry would say.