LIFE, LIBERTY and the PURSUIT
"Freedom" has long been used as justification
for large scale violence.
In 1982 then-President Ronald Reagan told the British Parliament,
"I don't have to tell you that in today's world the existence
of nuclear weapons could mean, if not the extinction of mankind,
then surely the end of civilization as we know it.... At the same
time there is a threat posed to human freedom by the enormous
power of the modern state. History teaches the dangers of government
that overreaches political control taking precedence over free
economic growth, secret police, mindless bureaucracy, all combining
to stifle individual excellence and personal freedom."
To gauge the present state of individual freedom and personal
excellence in the U.S., perhaps one need look no further than
in front of the White House.
June 3, 1981 a vigil for "Wisdom & Honesty" has
stood 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in Lafayette Park in front
of the White House. Those who maintain
the vigil see it as their exercise of "personal freedom"
in pursuit of "individual excellence."
From its inception this vigil has looked for a society led
by truth and reason to replace the leadership of fear and violence.
The vigilers urge the abolition of nuclear weapons, the ultimate
form of violence.
Until 1989 the vigil was largely a statement of individual
commitment, a "free philosophical forum," where vigilers
and the passing public could test their competing perceptions
of reality. Over the years many young people said, "What
you're doing is cool, but if you really want to make a difference
you have to work within the system." The vigilers don't have
much faith in systems, but they decided to give it a try. Thus,
PROPOSITION ONE, a nationwide
voter initiative to abolish nuclear weapons, evolved as
a practical means of working within the system.
In a sense, the fact that this vigil has not been crushed
in the manner of Tiananmen Square can be perceived as a tribute
to U.S. devotion to freedom of thought, expression and assembly.
Indeed, occasionally a patriotic tourist has commented "You
should be thankful for nuclear weapons; they protect your freedom
to be here."
William Thomas, founder of the vigil, sees the "protection
of freedom" argument as a cleverly engineered, widespread
misdirection. "It's hard to convince me that nuclear weapons
are protecting our 'right to be here'." Thomas says. "I
think it's got more to do with our own stubbornness."
Thomas believes there may also be another explanation for
the vigil's continued existence. "I think the government
finally realized that we're more of a boon to them than a deficit.
Tour groups come through here all the time. The guides point to
us as an example of freedom, 'Look, they can sit right in front
of the White House.' The government can afford to let us stay
here; we're no threat; everyone's so busy watching television
or deciding which movie to go to that few people take what we're
saying seriously. Seeing us here helps reenforce the illusion
Some middle-class tourists tell the vigilers, "Get
a job." Thomas has a problem with the concept that one's
value to society is determined by one's salary. "Anything
I do within this system feeds the war machine and helps build
weapons of mass destruction." Thomas
explains. "People suffer so the U.S. can live in opulence.
I'm not comfortable with that.
"I began questioning the existence of genocidal weapons
from the premise that people are basically good; but then I had
to ask myself, 'If people are basically good, how can they possibly
be building such demonic weapons?'" Thomas believes either
he's been mistaken about human nature, or basically good people
have been manipulated into believing that weapons of mass, indiscriminate
murder serve a higher purpose -- the preservation of freedom.
"The conflict between the US and the USSR didn't have anything
to do with freedom, or even ideology; it was purely economic.
Dollars versus rubles was the contest which fueled the Cold War
and built the nuclear arsenals," Thomas says.
On October 1, 1999 Cal Thomas, a nationally syndicated columnist,
wrote in the Washington Times, "Mr. Reagan wanted
to rid the world of communism because he saw it as the ultimate
impediment to the freedom we enjoy. He succeeded with the Soviet
Union, and millions of souls breathe free today because of him."
"Cal Thomas is one of those folks who can't determine
the difference between liberty and dollars," William Thomas
claims. "Ten years after the demise of the 'Evil Empire'
more than enough nuclear weapons still exist to end civilization.
Have we been preparing the extinction of mankind for freedom,
or for money?"
While Reagan and Bush were president Thomas was arrested
almost once a month. "During the Reagan/Bush administrations
four regulations were enacted, each of which transformed some
aspect of 'constitutionally protected expressive activity' into
'criminal activity.' I've been beaten
up by police, thrown in jail, had my signs and literature confiscated
and destroyed," says Thomas. He has lost track of the exact
number, but figures he's been arrested
over 40 times since 1981.
Under Clinton's rule the number of arrests
has fallen dramatically. Thomas says he's only been arrested
four times since 1993. Unlike the Reagan/Bush regime, when arrests
were orchestrated at administrative levels, he attributes the
arrests under Clinton to rogue officers "who just wanted
to give me a hard time."
Even though he's been arrested far fewer times under a Democratic
president than under Republican presidents, Thomas feels that
collective individual liberty has suffered more under Clinton's
watch. With Clinton at the helm Pennsylvania Avenue was closed,
and public access to Lafayette Park severely limited. "Reagan
used to say we needed to resist communism to keep Lafayette Park
from becoming like Red Square." Thomas recalls. "But
now that the Soviet Union is gone the biggest threat to the continued
openness of Lafayette Park is posed by the Secret Service."
In the entire history of the nation, Lafayette Park was
first closed -- for "security concerns" -- on the occasion
of Mikhail Gorbachev's 1987 visit to Washington. Thomas took the
government to court, arguing that, unlike Red Square, when a visiting
dignitary visited Lafayette Park citizens were free to throng
to the sidewalks and express their support or scorn. He urged
the court to preserve this grand tradition, and predicted that
if the court allowed the government to get away with this unprecedented
measure it would become common practice. The government argued
"security concerns," that Gorbachev's visit was "unique,"
the closures would be brief (15 minutes at a time), and there
would probably never be another instance like it.
History shows the government was mistaken. In the first nine
months of 1999 the Park was partially or completely closed 22
times. In 1998 it was ten times; in 1996 and 1997, nine; in 1995,
eight, 1993 and 1994, three; during Reagan/Bush, there was one
closure in 1988, again in 1989, 1990, and 1992, and two in 1987.
Most recently the government set a new precedent by closing
the entire Park because of a public demonstration. Public
demonstrations by invitation only, a strange brand of "freedom."
In her book, "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of
Happiness," ex-Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan tells
the story of asking a Chinese dissident whether "the longing
for democratic principles that has swept the generation of Tiananmen
Square has been accompanied by a rise in religious feeling --
a new interest in Buddhism,. Taoism, Christianity.
"She thought for a moment, and looked at me. 'Among the
young, I would say our religion is money,' she said. I nodded,
'Oh, that's our religion too'."
There are still the religious zealots, the "Kill a Commie
for Christ" crowd. "They're sadly deluded too,"
Thomas alleges. "They think the Prince of Peace would like
them to wipe out major cities to protect their religious freedom."
"If you can identify a person's 'god' by determining
what they worship," Thomas says. When someone claims to worship
a 'God of life,' but spends their lives chasing money and constructing
devilish means of protecting their wealthy lifestyles, then, it
seems their 'god' is really 'mammon'."
Thomas is quick to point out that Christians aren't the
only hypocrites. "If 250 million people believe the same
lie, it's still not the truth. 'Free Kuwait' was as Orwellian
as 'Was is Peace'; Kuwait was, and still is, a monarchy. A more
honest battle cry would have been, 'Massacre Iraqis to Keep Gas
Under $2 a Gallon,' but, of course, in war truth is the first
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Money
Although Thomas' focus has been nuclear weapons, he sees
them as only symptomatic of a broader societal illness. "The
United States is an ideologically bankrupt, unprincipled nation,
lacking any value system but dollars and cents. Truth, justice,
freedom and equality are essential for a peaceful society. When
the common value is materialism, the result is a society where
the leader can get away with perjury, children kill children just
for the hell of it, and 'security' becomes such an obsession that
security forces feel mandated to create private 'public' demonstrations."
Thomas says he thinks there are a couple of possibilities.
"Either I'm crazy, or the people across the street are crazy.
I hope it's me, because I'm not a danger to myself or others.
But if it is me, I can't think of a better way to pinpoint were
I'm out of touch with reality than to sit in a park and express
my ideas to the public." After 18 years of public expression,
Thomas feels more secure about his sanity, but that doesn't make
"From the way things were going when I began this
in 1981, I thought there were two potential futures for humanity;
nuclear holocaust, or a worldwide totalitarian police state. Things
don't seem to have changed much." Thomas says.
started by divorcing myself from the system, but, through PROPOSITION
ONE, I also tried working within the system," he adds.
"Over the years, it seems, the 'hopelessly idealistic' concept
of abolishing nuclear weapons has begun to appear more practical.
Unfortunately, although it seems there is no other workable plan
for accomplishing the elimination of nuclear arsenals, and despite
the fact that a small group of people have managed to prove that
there is some practical merit to the idea, an inexplicable lack
of direction has paralyzed any nationwide action.
"If people who desire nuclear abolition were to work
together to make Proposition One the law, imagine the results!"