On Saturday, I saw a bald eagle, and yet I’m unable to write about it. You’d think that’s what I’m doing now, but it’s not, not really, not like the moment deserves. I had just stepped out of my vehicle when I saw it flying overhead. I’ve seen bald eagles locally on occasion, but town, even the small town I was in, was the last place I expected to see one. In less than half a minute it disappeared from view behind the building, but it’s surprising appearance, on the morning of September 11, gave me a sense of peace. I was struck by the notion that the bald eagle was a fitting symbol of liberty. Like the concept of liberty, the bald eagle predates the United States, and, like the concept of liberty, will hopefully endure regardless of the course this country takes through history. There was something comforting in the idea that the longing for liberty will endure in the hearts of men and women in all places and times, under all circumstances. Nearly two thousand years ago, the Roman historian Tacitus observed that happy are the times when men and women can think and say what they please. That afternoon, I began to write about that-and it went nowhere.
That’s been a problem this year. There’s been much to write about, but each time I tried, it’s fizzled. This year we’ve seen the freedom of speech condemned as unworkable, elected officials float the idea of a “truth commission,” and the US government explore the possibility of censuring texting. This year we’ve seen people banned from social media, their posts condemned as “misinformation,” with what’s defined as “misinformation” in constant flux and depending on who says it. We have reached the point in the United States where dissenting opinions are apt to be silenced. This has not been a good year for liberty in the United States. Against this backdrop it’s hard to write about important issues on a blog not devoted to politics, and other issues seem inane in comparison.
The problem is we live in an age where everything is considered political. Everything. Even writing about a bald eagle flying overhead on the anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on US soil. And the saddest part is that while there has been an outcry over restrictions on free speech in the United States, there has not been as much as you might think. That is the most disheartening of all. For while liberty in the United States suffered a blow from the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, there was enough love of freedom that those laws had a sunset clause, and in the next election the opposing party was voted out. I doubt there’s that same love for liberty in the US today. Oh, there’s still lip service to liberty, but when you hear “experts” argue on partisan media that we can no longer have free speech basically because people cannot be trusted to agree with them, you know that liberty is no longer held in high esteem.
This is not something I thought I’d see in the United States. You will always have those who will decry liberty, particularly when it gives voice to opposition, or stands in the way of what they hope to accomplish. John Adams had no lack of supporters willing to use the Alien and Sedition Acts to silence dissent. But many more embraced the ideal of freedom, and enough have questioned the wisdom of curtailing liberty that it did not die in the US, and such has been the case in similar episodes since. But now, given what I’ve seen this year, I’m not certain this still holds true. The ideal of liberty seems to have dimmed in the hearts of many, and while this country can, and has, endured many things, it cannot if its people no longer embrace it.
Such was my frame of mind Saturday morning as I went about my business, and such is my frame of mind now. The difference is that now I have hope that whatever the fate of the United States, whether that shining light on the hill envisioned by our founders brightens once more or vanishes in the Stygian darkness of totalitarianism, the concept of liberty will endure. Men and women will always yearn to think and say what they please and to go about their lives mostly as they wish, whether they can do so or not. As long as there remains the idea of liberty, there remains the hope that one day people will once again live free. Perhaps they’ll even know that here was once a nation founded on the ideal of liberty, and it held to that principle more perfectly than its contemporaries. Such was the notion that came to mind as I watched, for a few moments, in an unlikely place, a bald eagle in flight.
I’m not one for omens. Seeing that bald eagle in flight meant nothing more than I saw a bald eagle in flight. That it could be a symbol for liberty is simply a comforting notion that sprang to mind, that the fate of liberty is not contingent on the United States. Yet how much better would it be if Americans once more gave thought to what liberty means, and realize that those who would control what we say do not have our best interests at heart?