In case you missed President Bush’s second inauguration speech, let me sum it up for you with one word: freedom. Freedom with a capital F, as in FDR’s famous four, Capitol Hill fries, and Mel Gibson wearing a kilt and blue warpaint. Apparently, the terrorists hate us for our freedom, and we’re going to do our damnedest to spread it around the world just to piss them off. But there was something missing between the lofty liberal ideals, and the hidden religious rhetoric, something very basic: a definition. What exactly is this freedom that is God’s gift to humanity?

When still-President Bush offers freedom to the rest of the world, is he pushing our democratic ideals like free press and speech, or merely capitalism? When he tells jailed dissidents that “when you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you” does he mean that we are willing to go to war with every two bit despot, and China too?

We as a nation have made this promise before, and failed to keep it. After the first Gulf War, the first President Bush told the Shia majority to rise up, that we would support them. They did, and were duly slaughtered by Saddam, by the helicopters we allowed him to keep at the ceasefire talks in Safwan. President Bush later called the loss of life “unfortunate.” In an apparent attempt to rectify the situation, we went to war with Iraq again, and are now learning that its people desire freedom from our occupying forces nearly as much as they did from Saddam. Or they are at least free enough to articulate their desires through roadside explosives.

But the President’s speech was not about the past, and wars we’ve already fought in freedom’s name. It was a clarion call to the future, and the wars we have yet to fight. It was a clear signal to Iran and North Korea, the last standing members of the axis of evil. We will show them the road to our kind of freedom, open markets and an “ownership society”, whether they like it or not. Because freedom doesn’t mean Islamism, or Communism. If the people choose one of those ends, we won’t stand by them. We stood by and watched as democracy was suspended in Algeria in 1992 when Muslim extremists were prepared to win in a landslide.

We are currently preparing for an election in Iraq where perhaps 30% of the voters will be disenfranchised because “some pockets” will be too dangerous for voting. The expected pro-Shia results will not likely lead to a federal constitution, where the rights of the ethnic minority Sunni and Kurds will not be protected. Is this our idea of freedom, an election where we choose who can and cannot vote, and then apply the results equally to everyone? Or does freedom mean civil war, and chaos that makes the current insurgency pale in comparison?

Where is the freedom in the military bases we are building in Iraq to tighten our grip on the Middle East? Where is the freedom in the Patriot Act, passed without discussion, and soon to be made permanent? Where is the freedom in holding old men captive indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay?

The United States is no longer that shining city on a hill, that beacon of light to the world. Lady Liberty needs to adjust her torch, before we send her back to France. Despite President Bush’s uplifting speech, those huddled masses may be stuck yearning to breath free for at least another four years.

– Published in final IAP issue of The Tech