When Americans are willing to sacrifice freedom in order to preserve it, there’s something amiss with democracy, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts told an audience Nov. 4 at the 28th annual Ralph McGill Lecture.
In his lecture, “The Home of the Brave,” Pitts labeled as hypocrisy certain American political thought that ranks freedom below security. The tough-on-terror attitude fronted by the Bush administration allows the suspension of habeas corpus, secret federal prisons and wire-tapping citizen’s calls, which does more to undermine the democratic spirit than stop terrorists, Pitts said.
He traced what he called a path of the infractions against civil liberties, starting with then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s words on Sept. 12, 2001: “We’re Americans; we don’t walk around afraid.”
“Since then, what have we known but fear?” Pitts continued, saying that during the Republican and Democratic national conventions of 2004, when democratic principles should have soared, people who wanted to speak against the events were corralled into “free speech zones” outside the convention spaces.
“I thought the whole country was a free speech zone,” Pitts said.
That message became a frequently re-visited theme in the talk before more than 250 people in the Student Learning Center.
Among those Pitts took to task were students. “Some young person always comes up to me and asks: ‘What can I do?’ ” he said. “But think about it: Forty years ago, young people weren’t asking that question. They marched in streets. They wrote manifestos. They held rallies. They sang songs. They put bodies on the line for what they believed. Wake up. If you want see change, be change.”
His call to action, however, was meant for more than the youth. The apathy of the Internet generation combined with the fear refined in the larger voting populous creates a dangerous cocktail of willing ignorance, freedom censoring and international resentment that cannot lead the country toward a bright future, Pitts said.
“America is not for wimps,” he said. “Freedom takes guts. That’s because freedom is a messy, often problematic thing, even a downright dangerous thing. We need to quit being so quick to whine and surrender and act as if the mess and the problems and the danger were some kind of betrayal or evidence of some kind of flaw.”
Pitts also criticized news media outlets, charging them with giving up on a quest for truth for fear of looking less than patriotic. The most sincere threat against democracy is refusing to question, Pitts said. He concluded with a thinly veiled election year charge to oust the majority party and any politician who values safety over democracy.
“It is time all of us grew a spine because there is one undeniable truth about living in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’: If you do not have the guts to be the one, you will soon cease to be the other,” he said.