Jul 052008

Before GWB, conservatives liked to quote Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

More recently their tune has changed. Now, the only deciding factor on whether to enact warrantless wiretaps is whether they will make us safer. Whether they will make us freer is not discussed. Conservatives defend the right to gas-hogging SUVs for the sake of safety, never mind that they aren’t so safe for soldiers who have to go overseas to defend our oil supplies.

Once upon a time the Fourth of July was for celebrating freedom. Now it’s all about safety. The local newspaper at my parents’ place in Minnesota has a list of 18 rules for how to deal with fireworks safely. My oldest son points out that that’s 8 more rules than there are Commandments. Any list of rules that exceeds 10 is too repressive.

The same newspaper has not a single word of advice on how to make ourselves into the kind of people who will take risks to ensure freedom for all, which is what would truly honor those people who gave us the Fourth.

Maybe all is not lost, though. For the past 3 hours I’ve been listening to loud fireworks around the lake at my parents’ house. One didn’t used to hear such things here. In Minnesota it used to be that fireworks were pretty much restricted to official displays put on by the authorities. A few years ago they were democratized, I am told, with the result being the noise that I’m still listening to while people in the house are trying to sleep.



This photo, taken in fall 1956, shows where we used to live in northeast Nebraska, back in the late 50s and early 60s. (The weird tree in the foreground is mostly a fingerprint smudge.)

We kids didn’t have much money to spend, but each July 4 we’d go to town and buy some fireworks. It was generally a pitiful collection. But some friends of my parents would usually come to help spend the evening watching them, and they would come with a shopping bag or two full of them to add to our meager collection. The parents and younger kids would sit on the front steps of that house in the center of the photo, and watch the show. It was nothing like what we’ve been seeing tonight, but at the time we thought it was great.

The next morning I’d go around to collect the spent rockets and other remains, which included some wicked-looking whirly things with metal blades. You wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of one of those if they went astray. We would take any duds that still had powder, cut them to expose the powder, and light them. And someone usually would have some firecrackers that one couldn’t buy legally even in Nebraska.

It wasn’t all as highly regulated as the fireworks available now, but they did help us truly honor the spirit of the day, which is a time to do something slightly illegal, unsafe, and annoying.

I don’t wish any child to lose an eye or anything else by playing with fireworks, but it is important for our children to learn how to take risks for the sake of freedom. If those who went before us had always put safety first, we wouldn’t have a Fourth to celebrate. And if we aren’t ever willing to risk anything, there will be no freedom in the future.