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In Defense of Liberty: The Relationship Between Security
Published on July 18, 2008 by Victor Hanson, Ph.D.
Delivered June 3, 2008
Nile Gardiner, Ph.D.: Good morning. Welcome to the Heritage Foundation and the fifth
Margaret Thatcher Freedom Lecture.
The Margaret Thatcher Lecture series began in September 2006, with a major speech by
former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky on the subject, “Is Freedom for Everyone?” It was
followed by lectures on economic freedom and religious freedom by Hernando de Soto and
Michael Novak, and by Ambassador John Bolton’s lecture “Does the United Nations Advance
the Cause of Freedom?”
Our distinguished speaker today is Victor Davis Hanson, who will address the theme, “In
Defense of Liberty: The Relationship Between Security and Freedom.”
Dr. Hanson is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University; Professor
Emeritus at California University, Fresno; and a nationally syndicated columnist. He is also
the Wayne and Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History at Hillsdale College, where he
teaches courses in military history and classical culture.
Dr. Hanson has served as a visiting professor of classics at Stanford University and as the
Visiting Shifrin Chair of Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis. He received
the Manhattan Institute’s Wriston Lectureship in 2004 and the 2006 Nimitz Lectureship in
Military History at U.C. Berkeley.
Victor Davis Hanson is the author of hundreds of articles, book reviews, scholarly papers, and
newspaper editorials on matters ranging from Greek, agrarian, and military history to foreign
affairs, domestic politics, and contemporary culture.
He is one of America’s most distinguished classical scholars, and has written or edited thirteen
books, including Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece; The Western Way of War;
The Wars of the Ancient Greeks; Carnage and Culture; An Autumn of War; Ripples of Battle:
How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live, and How We Think, and,
most recently, A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the
Peloponnesian War, which was named one of the New York Times Notable 100 Books of
Victor Davis Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 and is one of the
premier military historians of our time. We are honored to have him with us today to deliver
the Margaret Thatcher Freedom Lecture.
NileGardiner, Ph.D., is Director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of
the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage
Victor Davis Hanson: There cannot be freedom without security nor true security without
freedom. The Greeks from the very beginning understood this symbiosis between the two, and
framed the nature of the relationship-and occasional antithesis-between these necessary poles.
The historian Thucydides, for example, makes Pericles, in his famous funeral oration, talk in
depth about the nature of democratic military service and sacrifice that are the linchpins of the
freedom of Athens, and how any short-term disadvantages that may harm an open society at
war are more than compensated by the creativity, exuberance, and democratic zeal that free
peoples bring to war.
Because, like all democratic leaders, Pericles knew the charge that liberal peoples were prone
to indiscipline and incapable of collective sacrifice in times of peril, he made the argument
that consensual societies in extremis fight as well-disciplined as closed, oligarchic
communities, and yet still enjoy the advantages that accrue to liberal societies.
We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any
opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit
by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens;
while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after
manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every
In contrast, authors as diverse as Herodotus, Xenophon, and Aristotle remind us that the king,
tyrant, and autocrat live insecure lives, since their reign is based on fear and instilled terror,
and thus they dare not ever lessen their grip for an instant, lest both the people and the
military turn on their despised government.
The long history of Western civilization-the Persian War, the Punic Wars, the Napoleonic
Wars, World Wars I and II, the Cold War-often suggests that free peoples, if slow to confront
enemies on the horizon, nevertheless have been able more often than not to defeat their
autocratic enemies. That is why today the West is defined by consensual governments rather
than something more akin to the Napoleonic, Hitlerian, or Stalinist modes of rule.
In other words, the Western tradition of civilian-controlled militaries erred on the side of
openness, with the assurance that, when war came, the advantages of free speech, expression,
and informality would more than outweigh those of discipline, rote, and authoritarianism that
their dictatorial enemies embrace.
The Balance of Freedom and Security
The key for Western societies in times of peril has been to calibrate the proper balance
between personal freedom and collective military preparedness and readiness. Often
authoritarianism-Rome in the imperial period, Medieval monarchies, France under Napoleon,
the fascism of Italy and Germany-has sacrificed personal liberties in preference for security
concerns and militarist cultures.
Other Western societies, often in reaction to recent bloody wars, have erred in the opposite
fashion on the side of disarmament and appeasement, and lost their liberty as a consequence
of not being able to provide security for their own peoples. Here one thinks of the fate of
Athens in the age of Demosthenes or France of 1940.
But more often the dilemma is not so black and white. Abraham Lincoln, and later Andrew
Johnson, suspended habeas corpus in some border states to detain pro-Confederate
sympathizers, and later Ku Klux Klan organizers. In World War II, the United States censored
news from the front, hid information about military disasters, tried and executed German
saboteurs in secret military tribunals, and wiretapped the phones of suspected enemy
sympathizers- and yet preserved the Constitution while fighting a global war with a military
of over 12 million.
Since September 11, 2001, Western societies have struggled with this age-old tension
between freedom and security concerns, and a number of dilemmas have arisen.
With passage of the Patriot Act, the establishment of the Guantanamo detention center, courtapproved wiretaps, renditions of terrorist suspects abroad, and systematic surveillance, some
Americans have often casually alleged that the Constitution has been sacrificed to
unnecessary security concerns. But it is far more difficult to calibrate this supposed loss of
civil liberties than it is to appreciate the absence of a post-9/11 terrorist attack. That said, is
there a danger that, in fact, we have lost much of the ability of self-expression- not through
government zealousness, but a certain laxity on its part to protect free speech-as a result of
Western public opinion that itself is willing to sacrifice unfettered expression, either out of
good intentions or sheer fear?
The Nature of Freedom
In this regard, we can ask a few rhetorical questions about the nature of freedom and security
in the public realm. Take a variety of contemporary genres of Western expression.
Film: Is it now safer for a moviemaker to produce a controversial feature-length film
attacking the President of the United States (as in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 or Gabriel
Range’s Death of a President,which offered a dramatic version of an assassination of George
Bush) or a short clip questioning radical Islam, such as Gert Wilders’ Fitna or Theo Van
Novels: Is a Western writer more in danger for writing a novel contemplating the
assassination of a sitting American President (such as Nicholson Baker’s 2004 Alfred Knopfpublished Checkpoint) or one, in allegorical fashion, caricaturing Islam (such as Salman
Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses)?
Journalism: Is a Westerner more constrained from caricaturing a sitting American President
in print (such as Jonathan Chait’s 2004 New Republic article, “The Case for Bush Hatred,”
with its first sentence, “I hate President George W. Bush”) or drawing editorial cartoons
mocking Islam (such as those initially published in 2005 in the Danish newspaper JyllandsPosten)?
Religious Expression: Is a Western religious figure more in danger issuing a CD damning
the United States (such as Rev. Jeremiah Wright calling the United States “The USKKK of
A,” urging his congregation to “Goddamn America,” and suggesting that the United States
deserved the 9/11 attacks) or referencing the historic relations between Islam and Christianity
(such as Pope Benedict’s quotation of a 14th century Byzantine treatise about a letter from a
Manuel II Paleologus to leaders of the Ottoman Empire)?
Public Dissent and Expression: Would a citizen of London or Amsterdam feel more secure
in violent public protest of Israeli foreign policy or in peacefully criticizing Islamic Sharia law
and its contributions to terror abroad and repression at home?
Government Bureaucracies: Is it more likely for an American or European government
agency to prohibit the use of particular descriptive phrases, such as “Islamic terrorism” or
“Jihad,” or insensitively to demonize all Muslims in its public proclamations?
Each age has its demons of either laxity or authoritarianism. But our age has fostered a novel
menace in a peculiar form of self-censorship that far exceeds anything dreamed up by the
Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, or the Pentagon. The only mystery about our
reluctance to speak honestly and freely about particular issues is our eagerness to give up on
free expression, especially when it comes to radical Islam that fuels much of the world’s
terrorism in the present post-9/11 landscape.
Other than fear, one cause surely is contemporary postmodern ideologies, such as
multiculturalism, utopian pacifism, and moral equivalence. What these notions have in
common are particular views of radical egalitarianism and Western culpability for the
inability to achieve it.
Multiculturalism-whether found in Edward Saïd’s Orientalism or “black liberation theory” or
various indictments of European colonialism of Africa and the Americas-grew up in an age of
postwar affluence, characterized by Western guilt over past colonialism, imperialism, and
global dominance. It argues that the sins of humankind-slavery, sexism, racism, and
imperialism-were uniquely Western rather than simply innate to all cultures. Therefore, we
could hardly use our own arbitrary standards of “freedom” or “equality” to judge other
cultures, a practice that in the past had led to the subjugation and oppression of others under
dishonest banners such as “civilization.”
In its most radical manifestation, multiculturalism would argue that Westerners could not
arbitrarily define what distinguishes the methodology of a contemporary Islamic terrorist
from, say, the revolutionary generation of 1776 or a B-17 bombardier over Dresden or an
American G.I. at Hue. Or, more broadly, the multiculturalist alleges that the West has neither
the moral capital nor the intellectual deftness to condemn foreign practices such as suicide
bombing, religious intolerance, female circumcision, and honor killings, and so must allow
that these endemic practices and customs are merely “different” rather than repugnant across
time and space.
The practical consequence is that millions within the West have been taught not believe in
Western exceptionalism and thus insidiously convey that message to millions of immigrants
who seek to enjoy the benefits of European and American life, but feel no need to assimilate
into it, and, in some cases, thrive on being as antithetical to it as possible-albeit without
forfeiting the undeniable material benefits that residency within Western borders conveys.
Many Westerners are now hesitant to condemn something like Sharia law in abstract terms as
an enemy of freedom, or to say Islamist suicide bombers kill barbarously for a uniquely evil
cause. Because of multiculturalism, many in the West either don’t think jihadists pose any
more threat than does their own industrial capitalist state, or, if they do, they feel that they
simply lack the knowledge, or have previously lost the moral capital, to do anything about it.
Utopian pacifism was always innate in Western civilization, given its propensity both to wage
horrific wars and, in response, to seek trans-national legislative means to prevent the
reoccurrence of such catastrophes. From classical times, there has been a strain in Western
letters and thought that a natural human, freed of the burdens of an oppressive civilization,
might find a blissful existence without war, hunger, or the stress of the nation-state-should he
be properly educated and replace emotion with reason.
In revulsion to the carnage of the European 20th century, and given the respite at the end of an
existential threat from a nuclear Soviet Union, these old ideas about the perfectibility of
human nature through education, and energized by a vast increase in national income, have
again taken hold. Sometimes we see these hopes manifested in world government, such as
those who advocate surrendering national sovereignty to the United Nations or the World
Court at The Hague.
Sometimes they are more pedagogical and more ambitious, such as establishing “Peace
Studies” programs to inculcate our youth that with proper study and counsels war can be
outlawed, as if the resulting carnage is a result of misunderstanding rather than evil leaders
knowing exactly what they want and planning how to get it. At other moments, diplomats
delude themselves into thinking leaders of autocratic states-a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran
or Bashar Assad of Syria or North Korea’s Kim Jong-il-either have legitimate complaints
against the West that explain their hostility or have been misrepresented in the Western press
and appear bellicose largely through misunderstanding and miscommunication. In fact, the
utopian believes that such autocrats no more wish to harm us than we do them, and resort to
armed threats largely as a legitimate reaction to the military preparedness of democracy.
Like multiculturalism, utopian pacifism has had the effect within Western societies of
defining difference down, and deluding Western publics into thinking that problems with
radical Islam are as much of our own making as they a result of aggressive jihadist doctrines.
In practical terms, utopianism, like multiculturalism, translates into a public that does its best
to convey the message that Western and radical Islamic cultures are roughly similar- and that
any differences that arise can be adjudicated through greater understanding and dialogue.
Therefore, novelists, filmmakers, journalists, or politicians who believe otherwise should not
express their sentiments out of concern for the greater ecumenical good-or at least exercise
prudence in curtailing free expression, in recognition that their naked expression may evoke a
counter-response quite injurious to the Western public in general.
A third postmodern tenet that has curtailed free expression is what I would call moral
equivalence, or the inability to discern Western and non-Western pathologies. As a strain of
multiculturalism, moral equivalence seeks to do away with any notion of calibration and
magnitude and places impossible burdens of perfection upon Western societies.
Sometimes the Western misdemeanor is defined down as equivalent to another culture’s
felony. Abu Ghraib, for example, where no Iraqi detainees perished, is the equivalent of either
a Nazi Stalag or Soviet Gulag, where millions were starved to death or executed. After all, all
three were penal camps and therefore roughly equivalent in ethical terms.
Context becomes irrelevant. The invasion of Iraq-approved by an elected Senate, argued over
at the United Nations, intended to remove a genocidal dictator and leave a constitutional
government in its wake-is no different from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the result of a
Communist dictatorship’s desire to crush an anti-Soviet neighbor, waged ruthlessly against a
civilian population, and resulting in the installation of an authoritarian puppet government.
Standards of censure are never equally applied: We worry whether an errant bomb killed Iraqi
civilians; silence ensues when Russians nearly obliterate Grozny and kill tens of thousands of
civilians. The mishandling of the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, one of
the five worst natural disasters in the nation’s history, in which 1,836 Americans were killed,
is singular evidence of American racism and incompetence; nearly 300,000 were lost in an
Indonesian tsunami, a Burmese hurricane accounted for 100,000 dead, and a Chinese earthquake took 50,000 lives-and few remarked either on the incompetence of these governments
in reacting to such a staggering loss of life or the failure of such states to provide safe and
adequate housing for their populations in the first place.
Despite the veneer of internationalism and caring, moral equivalence is predicated on the
arrogant and condescending notion of low expectations- that an educated and affluent
Western society must not err, while the “other” is apparently always expected to. Once the
doctrine of moral equivalence is adopted, it becomes impossible to abide by any standards of
censure. We circumcise infant males, so why should not the Sudanese “circumcise” female
infants? We have bombed civilians, so why should not suicide bombers do the same? Timothy
McVeigh was a religious, right-wing terrorist, so why are the thousands of Islamist terrorists
deserving of any special censure?
The aggregate result of multiculturalism, utopian pacifism, and moral equivalence is that
philosophically and ethically the Western public becomes ill-equipped to condemn Islamic
extremism. In Western consensual societies, this so-called “political correctness” likewise
permeates the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. For a variety of
reasons, we voluntarily restrict free speech and expression. But in the cases in which we
otherwise would not, we do not expect our governments to have the intellectual and moral
wherewithal to protect the safety of writers, filmmakers, intellectuals, and journalists who
chose to express themselves candidly and incur the wrath of radicals abroad.
The Embarrassment of Riches
One question remains. Why have these particular harmful doctrines become so popular in our
own era? In the general sense, the wealthier, freer, and more leisured a society becomes-and
none is more so on all three counts than is 21st-century America-the more its population has
the leeway, the margin of error, so to speak, both to question and feel guilty over its singular
privilege. Abstract doctrines that allow one to vent remorse over our riches, without denying
our enjoyment of them, satisfy a psychological need to reconcile what are intrinsically
Second, with the collapse of Communism and the rise of globalized capitalism, Marxism as a
formal doctrine was formally discredited. But its underlying and more vague assumptions that
the state must enforce an equality of result among all the citizenry remains attractive to many.
One way of forcing Western societies to redistribute their wealth both at home and abroad is
to argue that it was not earned or the results of practices not at all unique …
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