On November 13, a 24-year-old North Korean soldier, known only by his surname Oh, commandeered a jeep and sped toward the De-Militarized Zone that for 64 years has separated his Communist homeland from the democratic capitalist South.
As he approached the border, the young man abandoned the vehicle and scrambled on foot toward the line of control. North Korean soldiers began firing on him. He was hit five or six times before collapsing onto South Korean ground. Transported to a hospital in Suwon, near Seoul, doctors performed emergency surgery. They discovered and extracted parasitic worms from his small intestine. Diagnosed with tuberculosis and hepatitis B, he is nonetheless expected to recover.
Oh risked everything to live in freedom. He has joined the ranks of other defectors, refugees, and exiles who fled oppression for the chance of a life free of tyrannical control. From the Berlin Wall, to Vietnamese and Cuban boat people, to the DMZ, the prisoners of Communism run in only one direction: toward liberty and self-government, toward the bounty of the marketplace and the possibilities of representative democracy.
Many did not — many do not — make it. They die imprisoned, like the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, or do not survive the crossing, like Peter Fletcher, murdered by the Border Troops of the German Democratic Republic at the age of 18.
And there are millions more still who, having been born and raised in democratic capitalist societies, do not fully recognize or appreciate the novelty and blessing of their lives. The story of Oh is not only a reminder that the call of freedom persists. It is a rebuke to those who ignore freedom’s song.
For it has become fashionable, on both left and right, to downplay or ignore or deprecate the idea of freedom, to blame individualism, self-determination, and choice for inequality, pollution, corruption, immorality, decline, and other tragic aspects of the human condition. The fact that all of these pathologies flourish in autocratic, socialist, and Communist societies as well as in our own seemingly escapes the notice of the intellectual critics of freedom.
Even so, we are told that free will is a delusion, that we are better off being “nudged” by our cognitive and moral superiors, that freedom and democracy are like rubber bands that snap back when stretched to the limit. “We are drowning in freedom,” says one editor. Tell that to Oh.
I am the first to admit that freedom is not enough. It is a necessary but insufficient condition for human flourishing. In the absence of family, tradition, religion, community, and vocation, freedom can be directionless, aimless, self-indulgent, and even harmful. “What will be wrought by freedom unaccompanied by learning and faith?” asked one champion of freedom. “The license of Weimar Germany and the decadence of Imperial Rome; human behavior un-tempered by a sense of moral spiritual, or intellectual limits — the behavior G.K. Chesterton described as the ‘moral weakness of always sacrificing the normal to the abnormal.’ And when freedom is mangled in this way, what George Orwell would have called un-freedom soon follows.”
True, freedom may be only one of several ingredients for a good society. And disordered liberty may carry spiritual and physical costs. But these are no reasons to diminish freedom’s importance, its appeal, or its centrality in the American experience. Earlier this week marked the 154th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address and its peroration of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Yesterday, Americans celebrated our opportunity to live in religious and civil liberty. Every July, we commemorate our Declaration of Independence from Britain and rededicate ourselves to the idea of a government whose purpose is to secure inalienable natural rights.
We may be comfortable, affluent, secure, and self-involved, but dangers to freedom remain. The world’s most populous nation, and soon to be largest economy, is governed by a Communist dictatorship whose ruler idolizes the butcher Mao Zedong. Its allies include: a Stalinist hereditary monarchy with nuclear weapons; a gigantic autocratic mafia state fomenting discord around the globe; and a terrorism-supporting theocracy. A global movement of religious fanatics conspires to kill innocents and impose fundamentalist law. In our own hemisphere the Communist dictatorship of Cuba shows no signs of political or true economic liberalization while the socialist government of Venezuela has turned its people into mendicants.
We may be comfortable, affluent, secure, and self-involved, but dangers to freedom remain.
At home, the freedoms of speech and religion are under attack, the bureaucracy and judiciary resist attempts to hold them accountable to the people, the right to life is contested, personal freedom is endangered by the rise in violent crime, the national symbols of flag and anthem are denounced, and one of the authors of American liberty is defaced on the very grounds of the university he created. Might these phenomena be connected to the cynical degradation of the idea of freedom, to the mass forgetting of and assault upon our national patrimony and heritage?
In the spring of 1947 the recently installed president of the Screen Actors Guild gave an interview to Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. “Our highest aim,” he said, “should be the cultivation of freedom of the individual, for therein lies the highest dignity of man. Tyranny is tyranny, and whether it comes from right, left, or center, it’s evil.”
A few years later, that same actor delivered the commencement address to the 1952 class of William Woods College in Fulton, Mo.:
It has been said that America is less of a place than an idea, and if it is an idea, and I believe that to be true, it is an idea that has been deep in the souls of man ever since man started his long trail from the swamps. It is nothing but the inherent love of freedom in each one of us, and the great ideological struggle that we find ourselves engaged in today is not a new struggle. It’s the same old battle. We met it under the name of Hitlerism; we met it under the name of Kaiserism; and we have met it back through the ages in the name of every conqueror that has set upon a course of establishing his rule over mankind.
It is simply the idea, the basis of this country and of our religion, the idea of the dignity of man, the idea that deep within the heart of each one of us is something so God-like and precious that no individual or group has a right to impose his or its will upon the people, that no group can decide for the people what is good for the people so well as they can decide for themselves.
It’s hard to answer the question of how Ronald Reagan might have responded to the bewildering world of the early 21st century. But I can venture with absolute certainty that he would not have been surprised by the defection of Staff Sergeant Oh. He would have instantly grasped its significance and import. And he would have been pleased.