Feeling for freedom's limits

Free speech and freedom of religion are widely recognized as inalienable human rights. But there are other freedoms as well -- from want and fear, for instance. Determining the extent and limits of these freedoms is a never-ending job in a democracy.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Marchers call for the release of jailed US Army Pfc. Bradley Manning outside Fort Meade, MD.

People across the world stand in front of tanks, brave tear gas and rubber bullets, and sacrifice their lives for freedom. Freedom is among humanity’s deepest aspirations, a concept understood in every heart and revered in every society.

But what exactly is the measure of freedom?

In early 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt declared that a secure world rested on four essential human freedoms. Two were already enshrined in the US Constitution and familiar to generations of Americans: freedom of expression and worship. The other two were novel, even radical at the time. One was freedom from want, which Roosevelt described as the right of everyone to “a healthy peaceful life.” The other was freedom from fear, meaning that “no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor.”

FDR’s four freedoms are echoed in the preamble of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Four of Norman Rockwell’s most beloved paintings – the working-class guy standing to speak at a public meeting, worshipers’ heads bowed in prayer, a family gathered for Thanksgiving dinner, and parents tucking in their children while the dad holds a newspaper with the words “bombings” and “horror” in the headline – illustrate those four freedoms.

The struggle for freedom to and freedom from has propelled history for the past 72 years. It is behind virtually every news event. You can see it in the successive fights against fascism and communism. You can see it in the campaign for equal rights for African-Americans, women, and dozens of groups once excluded from full participation in self-government and the pursuit of happiness. You can see it in this week’s issue of the Monitor Weekly.

The quest for freedom from want has spurred worldwide progress against hunger, poverty, and disease. It explains, for instance, the massive mobilization against AIDS in Africa and other parts of the world as described by Jina Moore in a Monitor cover story. With the disease increasingly under control thanks to a sustained public health effort, Jina shows, the mothers, fathers, and children once crippled by HIV are increasingly free from fear. The newspapers they clutch no longer headline the horror of the disease.

Freedom from aggression, meanwhile, is at the heart of new questions about the US National Security Agency surveillance program. Terrorism is a very real public concern. But does national security require that every phone call and Internet click be saved? A Republican and a Democratic president – and a succession of members of Congress and a majority of the public as measured by current opinion polls – think so. But the revelation of the scope of the NSA’s data mining has touched off a national debate.

Absolute freedom is an ideal. But in the relative world of humanity, freedom’s extent and limits are always being reexamined and adjusted. Should all speech, including obscenity and hate speech, be free? Is there a point at which religious worship imposes on other people’s freedoms? Can a social safety net be maintained without fostering dependence or bankrupting the treasury? And where’s the line between security and liberty?

Asking and answering those questions is what we do in a free society. And after we decide, we’ll ask and answer again.

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