It’s true: Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction

Too much of the world seems intent on taking a dark turn toward the past.

Hamas’ unprovoked attack on Israel, indiscriminately slaughtering hundreds of civilians and taking others hostage, threatens to ignite the Middle East powder keg. There had been slow progress toward normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations, which would have been a breakthrough for regional peace. From there, one might have imagined a path to durable, peaceful co-existence between Israelis and their Arab neighbors, including Palestinians.

That possibility, which may have informed the timing of the Iran-backed terrorists’ actions, now seems impossibly remote. Instead, Israel may face a multifront war for the first time in a half-century.

A thousand miles to the northeast, fighting erupted a few weeks ago in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of the Caucasus.

The region, which has been fought over and passed among empires for centuries, had been home to tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians before Azerbaijani forces seized it Sept. 19. Now Armenia accuses its neighbor of ethnic cleansing.

And I don’t have to tell you about Vladimir Putin’s war a thousand miles to the northwest of that, in Ukraine, which is approaching its second anniversary with no end in sight.

An awful human toll has been exacted by cruel men in all three places. More suffering and death appears inevitable. Many people believed these things were consigned to the past, judged incompatible with contemporary society. The phrase “never again” refers specifically to the murder of Jews merely for the sake of being Jewish, a crime re-perpetrated by Hamas terrorists as they killed music festival-goers and infants in their homes merely because they were Jews.

These things are incompatible with contemporary society, but unfortunately society did not leave them wholly in the past. Lest you think “society” here refers only to the peoples of other nations, witness the Hamas apologists leading anti-Semitic demonstrations, or Putin apologists playing down Russian violence, in the United States and other Western countries.

A phrase that keeps coming to mind is one used often over the past decade-plus: “the right side of history.”

Few phrases contain so much hubris – and not only because some of the same American progressives who intoned it so self-righteously in the Obama-Trump-Biden years have been at pains to defend the barbarism of Hamas.

Each of us may envision a brighter future, but it is not guaranteed to us. Time may advance inexorably, but “history” proceeds in no straight line, no single direction. It may echo a time that was better. It may double back to a time that was worse.

Putin has used revisionist history to justify his claim on Ukraine. The useful idiots on U.S. college campuses must pretend history began in the 1940s to deny the Jewish people’s historical claim on Israel’s land. 

For these bad-faith actors, “history” means something different than what it means to the rest of us.

And so, the rest of us cannot assume the future is a given any more than we can treat the past as past. We cannot pocket gains of liberty or even decency, treating them as permanent. They must be re-established, re-endorsed, reconfirmed.

This is what Ronald Reagan meant when he said, “Freedom is a fragile thing and it’s never more than one generation away from extinction.”

That is true not only for the people of Ukraine, free for but a generation, or of Israel, free for only a few. It remains true for us as well.

Many among the “right side of history” crowd also view Americans’ freedom of speech as conditional, and our freedom of religion as dangerous. They would trade essential liberty not even for temporary security, as Benjamin Franklin warned, but for the false comfort of disengaging from difficult questions, avoiding inconvenient realities and denying the legitimacy of good-faith differences.

Assuming an uncontested future does not make it so. It may simply hasten a return to past darknesses.

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