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Jewish World Review
Feb. 27, 2006
/ 29 Shevat, 5766
Words reveal nations' goals, intent
"Audite, discipuli," my high school Latin teacher, Domina Quarles, would say — "Listen, students," before launching into an oration on etymology, the study of words.
Etymology was probably the last thing on President Bush's mind when he made freedom the cornerstone of American foreign policy.
"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe," Bush told the National Endowment for Democracy in 2003, "because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."
Given the history of political and religious extremism, warfare and terrorism that culminated in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it would be difficult to disagree.
If the concept of free societies is clear, the language to explain it has been less precise. In the parlance of the Bush administration, democracy has become freedom's cognate. But democracy — which derives from the Greek words meaning "common people" and "rule" — and freedom do not necessarily go hand in hand.
Just how awkward the relationship between freedom and democracy can be was underscored recently by the electoral triumph of Hamas, a terrorist group whose positions on the establishment of religion, free speech and freedom of the press are somewhat less than Jeffersonian.
In praising the Palestinian elections, Bush hailed "the power of democracy."
Well, yes. Democratic power, like any power, can be used for both good and bad ends.
The word that has been sorely missing from the Bush lexicon, the necessary companion to democracy in creating free societies is "republic," the Latin roots of which are res and publica — literally "a public thing."
In the United States, a democratic republic, our public things can be found in the Bill of Rights and our founding document: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights."
Americans have struggled mightily with these public things since 1776. Ultimately, they have come to mean that a majority of the people cannot democratically vote to make sister Rosa a slave or deprive brother Martin of his equal standing before the law.
Before we endorse the power of democracy for a political entity, we might pause to inquire about its public things.
In Afghanistan's constitution, negotiated into existence two years ago, Article 24 provides a compelling statement: "Liberty is the natural right of human beings," it says. "The state has the duty to respect and protect the liberty and dignity of human beings."
The preamble to the Iraqi constitution, approved by the Iraqi people in an election last October, declares: "We the people of Iraq, newly arisen from our disasters and looking with confidence to the future through a democratic, federal, republican system, are determined — men and women, old and young — to respect the rule of law, reject the policy of aggression, pay attention to women and their rights, the elderly and their cares, the children and their affairs, spread the culture of diversity and defuse terrorism."
These are lofty public things.
What are the public things of Hamas? Its charter is a series of redundancies about the obliteration of Israel and the desire to kill Jews. Article 8 declares its slogan: "Allah is its goal, the Prophet its model, the Koran its charter, jihad its path, and death for the cause of Allah its most sublime belief."
Charters and constitutions are, of course, merely words. They are only as meaningful as the actions that accompany them. Consider the official names some countries give themselves to hear how hollow some words can ring: the Republic of the Sudan, the People's Republic of China and the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea.
Words can sometimes reveal aspirations. Other times they betray concealed vulgarities.
Elections and democracy are indispensable for freedom. Their absence is the surest indication of oppressive power, no matter what it might call itself. Yet they alone do not make for free societies, which rest on a foundation of proper, public things.
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JWR contributor Jonathan Gurwitz, a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, is a co-founder and twice served as Director General of the Future Leaders of the Alliance program at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. In 1986 he was placed on the Foreign Service Register of the U.S. State Department.Comment by clicking here.
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