“Liberty” is a word that can send you crawling for cover these days. It comes armed and angry. Here’s a radio host in Minnesota addressing the victims of gun violence: “I’m sorry that you suffered a tragedy, but you know what? Deal with it, and don’t force me to lose my liberty, which is a greater tragedy than your loss.”
It’s the “my” in that sentence that gives the word its particular curdling quality.
We should love liberty—the word, I mean. Growing up I spent a lot of time hanging out at the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, and everyone understood, because we were from Massachusetts, that the name referred to the famous Boston Liberty Tree around which American patriots rallied before the Revolution, just as we understood that Patriots Day commemorated Paul Revere’s Ride and the Battle of Lexington and Concord. We were used to thinking of our state as the birthplace of American liberty.
Few who use the word liberty these days would associate it with Massachusetts. Liberty is not about same-sex marriage or universal health care. Indeed liberty seems mostly opposed to both, unless you catch a particular brand of libertarian who would reject the second but accept the first on the grounds that the state should stay out of marriage altogether.
Liberty, in its current usage, has a troubled relationship with the word freedom. It entirely lops off the second half of FDR’s four freedoms—freedom from want and freedom from fear—and is fitfully suspicious of the first two—freedom of speech and freedom of worship. (If you don’t believe me, try building a mosque in liberty’s neighborhood.) But then, you know, that’s FDR, from whose tyrannical legacy the liberty-lovers have long sought to be liberated.
Perhaps FDR was trying, as Obama still tries, to put the “our” in freedom, to remind us that we cannot separate the terms in the phrase “a free society.” The reach of that “our” is what liberty seeks to limit. For this reason, liberty, even in its American Revolutionary sense, is not in and of itself a good. The two brothers who attacked Boston on Patriots Day may have had more claim to the word liberty than the people they harmed. Incoherently, pointlessly, savagely, they were striking a blow for the liberation of Chechnya from Russia’s hegemonic power or Muslims from Westerners, as we did with Britain, as the South strove to do for the North, as latter-day patriots seek to do with the tyrannical power of the federal government. Liberty, in this sense, has no obvious inherent value. It might be a good, it might not.
What matters is what happens after liberty. What matters is freedom. Who believes that the South would have been a freer place if it had managed to secure its independence from the North? Who believes that America would be a freer place if our Minnesota radio host got his way? Freedom is a project and a difficult one. It requires many hands. Perhaps the Tsarnaev brothers inadvertently left us with an image of liberty and freedom: the isolated blow for liberty followed by the many-handed multitude working together to protect and secure their freedom.