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Hullabaloo


Wednesday, August 30, 2006

 

Liberated But Not Free

by poputonian

In a city with few real refuges from sectarian violence - not government offices, not military bases, not even mosques - one place always emerged as a safe haven: hospitals.

So Mounthir Abbas Saud, whose right arm and jaw were ripped off when a car bomb exploded six months ago, must have thought the worst was over when he arrived at Ibn al-Nafis Hospital, a major medical center in Baghdad.

Instead, it had just begun. A few days into his recovery at the facility, armed Shiite Muslim militiamen dragged the 43-year-old Sunni mason down the hallway floor, snapping intravenous needles and a breathing tubes out of his body, and later riddled his body with bullets, said family members.

In his book appropriately titled Liberty and Freedom author and historian extraordinaire David Hackett Fischer says, "In early uses, both words implied a power of choice, an ability to exercise one's will, and a condition that was distinct from slavery. In all of those ways, liberty and freedom meant the same thing."

But Fischer goes on to describe other ways in which their original meanings were different.

Our English word liberty comes from the Latin libertas and its adjective liber, which meant unbounded, unrestricted, and released from restraint. A synonymn was solutus, from the verb solvos, to loosen a set of bonds. These words were similar to the Greek eleutheria and eleutheros, which also meant the condition of being independent, separate, and distinct. The Greeks used these terms to describe autonomous cities, independent tribes, and individuals who were not ruled by another's will. That ancient meaning survives in the modern era, where eleutheros has spawned scientific terms such as eleutheropetalous or eleutherodactylic, for separate petals or fingers or toes. Eleutheria, like the Roman libertas, always impled some degree of separation and independence.

Freedom has another origin. It derives from a large family of ancient languages in northern Europe. The English word for free is related to the Norse frie, the German frei, the Dutch vrij, the Flemish vrig, the Celtic rheidd, and the Welsh rhydd. These words share an unexpected root. They descend from the Indo-European priya of friya or riya, which meant dear or beloved. The English words freedom and free have the same root as friend, as do their German cousins frei and Freund. Free meant someone who was joined to a tribe of free people by ties of kinship and rights of belonging.

A very similar meaning also appeared in the Sumerian ama-ar-gi, the oldest know word for anything like liberty or freedom, which appeared on clay tablets in Lagash before 2300 B.C. Ama-ar-gi came from the verb ama-gi, which meant literally going home to mother. It described the condition of servants no longer in bondage who returned to their free families.

In that respect, the original meanings of freedom and liberty were not merely different but opposed. Liberty meant separation. Freedom implied connection. A person with libertas in Rome or eleutheria in ancient Greece had been granted some degree of autonomy, unlike a slave. A person who had Freiheit in northern Europe or ama-ar-gi in southern Mesopotamia was united in kinship or affection to a tribe or family of free people, unlike a slave.

The question has been asked many times whether people in Iraq were better off under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. Is that possible? I'm not necessarily asking is that so, but more is it possible for someone to enjoy a higher degree of freedom while existing beneath a dictator's umbrella?


Fischer again:

Roman libertas gave rise to a complex vocabulary of stratification and mobility that still echoes in modern English speech. The Latin adjective liberaliter meant knowing how to behave gracefully and generously, in the manner of a highborn person who is secure in the possession of many liberties. It is the root of our word liberality. The noun libertinus meant an emancipated slave who had been granted liberties that he had not been prepared to use. Our modern word libertine preserves this ancient meaning.

Within this social frame, ancient philosophers developed libertas and eleutheria as ethical ideas of high complexity. The leaders were the Stoics, who wrote at greater length about liberty than others in the ancient world, especially the slave Epictetus (A.D. 55-135) and the emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-180). Both argued that to be truly free is to cultivate a spirit of independence from things that are not in one's control: bondage, tyranny, illness, pain, and death.

This Stoic condition of liberty could be achieved even in a despotism. It is striking that the leading stoic philosophers of liberty in ancient Rome were an emperor and a slave.

The article linked to above continues:

Authorities say it was not an isolated incident. In Baghdad these days, not even the hospitals are safe. In growing numbers, sick and wounded Sunnis have been abducted from public hospitals operated by Iraq's Shiite-run Health Ministry and later killed, according to patients, families of victims, doctors and government officials.

As a result, more and more Iraqis are avoiding hospitals, making it even harder to preserve life in a city where death is seemingly everywhere. Gunshot victims are now being treated by nurses in makeshift emergency rooms set up in homes. Women giving birth are smuggled out of Baghdad and into clinics in safer provinces.

In most cases, family members and hospital workers said, the motive for the abductions appeared to be nothing more than religious affiliation. Because public hospitals here are controlled by Shiites, the killings have raised questions about whether hospital staff have allowed Shiite death squads into their facilities to slaughter Sunni Arabs.


I guess in some cases it really sucks to be free.


Perhaps the great young inde-rocker Conner Oberst (with Emmylou Harris) said it best in his song Landlocked Blues:

We made love on the living room floor
With the noise in the background of a televised war
And in the deafening pleasure I thought I heard someone say
"If we walk away, they'll walk away"

But greed is a bottomless pit
And our freedom's a joke
We're just taking a piss
And the whole world must watch
The sad comic display
If you're still free start running away
Cause we're coming for you!

UPDATE: Here is a very nice set of photographs set to this Bright Eyes song (via You Tube) -- stay with it long enough to hear the bugle (is it a bugle?) that follows the words above, and of course, to hear the beautiful voice of Emmylou Harris. For those not familiar with Conner Oberst, the Bright Eyes front man, Rolling Stone Magazine tagged him as this generation's Bob Dylan.



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