Every movie lover knows the famous line from A Few Good Men,[i] “You can’t handle the truth!” But few of us focus much on the statements of Colonel Nathan Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, following that line:
So why do we even have governments? According to Thomas Jefferson, as set forth in the Declaration of Independence, governments are instituted to preserve our rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But practically speaking, what does that really mean? What is the appropriate balance between government providing us security and each of us exercising our individual freedoms? We want freedom, but are we willing to put our lives on the line to fight for it? Watch this scene in the movie, Trumbo,[ii] as Dalton Trumbo takes on John Wayne. After you peel away the sound bites, which of the two did more to protect freedom during World War II? But wait! Trumbo might have been a Communist!
I readily admit I don’t have many good answers. On the one hand, I am moved to anger, and sometimes even tears, when I hear about the loss of individual rights and abuses of power. Movies about slavery are almost always gut-wrenching to me. I cheer when I watch a movie about an independent press, exercising its first amendment rights, who investigates and exposes abuses of power by government, the military, a church or a corporation. I love legal dramas where justice and the rule of law prevail over a corrupt police officer or prosecutor. But on the other hand, outside of the movie theater, I love it when police and prosecutors put away true criminals and otherwise keep our homes, neighborhoods, and cities safe. I sleep well at night knowing we have a military and government that are vigilant in fighting terrorists, both at home and abroad. I love my freedom, but I love my security just as much. I want my government to protect my freedom, but how willing am I, really, to fight for it? No one was happier than I was when, during the Vietnam War, my lottery number was 315, guaranteeing that I would never be drafted. I’m older and hopefully wiser now and realize that war, more often than not, does more to destroy freedom than protect it. But when was the last time I participated in a peaceful protest march, wrote a letter to a newspaper editor, visited one of my elected officials or took any real action against some abuse of power? Do I have the guts to be a whistle blower? I might grumble to my family and friends, but do I do anything of real consequence to help preserve our rights?
I recently watch the movie. Snowden,[iii] the depiction of the real life Edward Snowden who exposed the U.S. government’s practice of surveillance of millions of American citizen’s private lives under the guise of the Patriot Act and the government’s war on terrorism. Here is a glimpse of what the government was doing:
And it wasn’t just surveying emails, phone records and chat rooms. The government was looking into our private lives without any of us knowing about it, including our bedrooms, where everyone has an expectation of privacy:
Edward Snowden inherently knew this invasion of privacy of people who had no connection to terrorism or were not a threat to anyone was not right and did something about it, even though he knew, by exposing the practice, he would be violating the law. But Snowden concluded, “I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.” Watch the final scene from the movie (with the real Edward Snowden) and don’t stop when the credits begin to role. Branded as a traitor, Snowden now lives in Russia to avoid incarceration for his disclosures of classified government information. Yet it was Snowden’s actions that led to the courts declaring that the government’s practices were illegal and a change in policy and practice by the Obama administration.
These post-disclosure actions by the government would seem to vindicate Snowden. Yet he remains in Russia.
I am law-abiding citizen. Most of us are. But there are still things we can do to preserve our freedom and prevent abuses of power from government and others, regardless of age, race, or political affiliation. As Bob Dylan said, “A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” So let’s all be heroes. Here are a few of my ideas. I would love others to share theirs as well.
- Learn (or relearn) what the American system of government is all about. Read the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, significant Supreme Court cases, and similar documents or histories.
- Get your news from several different sources with various agendas, biases and approaches. The same events can be reported significantly differently.
- Be willing to speak your mind, no matter how unpopular your position might be, but allow others to do the same. When others speak, listen. Find the valid points in both your position and theirs.
- Stand up for others whose freedom might be in jeopardy. For there, but for the grace of God, go all of us.
- Write letters to editors and politicians, or better yet, get directly involved in causes that are important to you.
- Remember that our elected officials are not perfect, but they still must be held accountable for their results (or lack thereof). Personally, I prefer a politician who has learned the art of effective compromise (which our Constitution is the result of) than one who draws lines in the sand and rejects anything that even approaches crossing that line.
- Ask questions and challenge those in authority when government does something that doesn’t feel right. Your impressions generally are right.
- Vote knowledgeably – in every election.
Dwight D. Eisenhower said it this way: “If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking … is freedom.” Let’s find that balance between security and freedom. I close with these words from Edward Snowden: “I still love my country. And I still consider myself working for it. To serve your country, sometimes you have to disagree with the government. And that is not traitorous. That, I would say, is patriotic.”
I tip my cap to patriots everywhere.
[i] A Few Good Men
- Production Company: Sony Movie Channel
- Director: Rob Reiner
- Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin
- Starring: Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, and Kevin Bacon
- Release date: December 11, 1992
- Production Company: Bleecker Street Films, ShivHans Pictures and Groundswell Productions
- Director: Jay Roach
- Screenwriter: John McNamara and Bruce Cook (book)
- Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane and Helen Mirren
- Release date: November 27, 2015
- Production Company: KrautPack Entertainment and Endgame Entertainment
- Director: Oliver Stone
- Screenwriter: Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone
- Starring: Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Shailene Woodley, and Melissa Leo
- Release date: September 16, 2016