Random thoughts on freedom

On the day that the Dutch commemorate their liberation from Nazi Germany.

With all the attention going to the Second World War you’d almost forget that this year is also the sad 20-year anniversary of the slaughtering of up to a million Tutsis. I know the Rwandan genocide took place on another continent, whereas the Holocaust happened on our doorstep, so the Dutch could be forgiven for focusing on their own history. Nevertheless, it feels uncomfortable how easy the West seems to forget about one of the most recent, and intense, ethnic cleansings. Every year, when I remember Auschwitz, I also think of Rwanda. And Srebrenica.

Because our commemoration of freedom coincides with the commemoration of the Second World War, the Dutch have a tendency to equate freedom with peace. I consider that too simplistic. If you ask me for my definition of freedom, I would say: the right to deviate. I consider individual rights one of the most important institutions that make us free. Even in a democracy, we need institutions like individual rights to protect us from the government. Without inalienable individual rights, democracy collapses to majoritarianism: two wolves and a sheep voting on lunch. Days like Liberation Day should remind us that although it sometimes feels uneasy or unjust that even the bad guys have individual rights to protect them from the government, the alternative is worse. Just so that next time a criminal gets acquitted because the evidence was acquired through illegal means, we remember what the world would look like if the cops were above the law.

Another reason why I disagree with the “freedom=peace” simplification is that we did not get rid of the Nazis by asking them politely. People were killed. Not just soldiers, but also civilians – my grand parents barely survived the infamous Bezuidenhout Bombing by the Royal Air Force. It’s a painful truth that war – any war – kills not only the bad guys, but also lots and lots of innocent people. Nevertheless, we have forgiven the RAF for its mistake (the Brits were quick to offer their apologies after they realized they bombed civilians, not V2 rockets), and we are still grateful to the British (and the Canadians, the Americans, the Polish, and all other Allied Forces) for liberating us. Had those soldiers not taken the unimaginable risks they took, we would “all be speaking German” as some would have it. Therefore, I believe that veterans – all veterans, not just WW2 veterans – should be an integral part of the Liberation Day events. To thank them, and to honour those who died in service.

That even includes the veterans who fought (and died) in wars we now perhaps think we should not have gotten involved in, like the Indonesian war of independence or the 2003 Iraq war. The Dutch still refer to the Indonesian war of independence as the “Politionele Acties” – a preposterous whitewash of a shameful history if you ask me. The Indonesians deserved to be independent of their colonial masters, and we had no right to govern them. Nevertheless, the soldiers who went were not the people who made the decisions. Only a few had the courage to refuse to go, and their refusal was considered high treason at the time.

Americans treat their veterans with a lot more respect than the Dutch do. When I was in Santa Barbara during Veteran’s Day I read a letter in the local newspaper by a Californian of German-Jewish descent. He explained how American soldiers rescued him, a little kid more dead than alive, from a concentration camp. He stayed with them because he could translate between German and English, and eventually went with them to the USA and became an American citizen. He wrote the letter to express his gratitude to all American veterans, and to the United States in general, for granting him a new lease on life and his freedom. I never forget that story.

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