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Tom Harbold: Price of liberty is eternal vigilance

Among my favorite times of the year is what I refer to as the long patriotic season between Memorial Day, originally held on May 30, and Independence Day, on July 4.
Historical purists may quibble over the date, but their objections are largely immaterial: since the earliest days of the Republic, Americans have celebrated our independence from Great Britain, and at least in theory from foreign control in general, on the 4th of July.
Independence Day is celebrated today pretty much as it has been since the beginning of our collective history, with fireworks, parades, picnics and cookouts, fairs and carnivals, concerts (frequently held outdoors), and various political ceremonies and speeches, as well of course as family reunions and - since its invention in the late 18th or early 19th century - games of baseball. And so it should be. Part of liberty is the freedom to celebrate it, even if in so doing we sometimes forget the significance of exactly what we are celebrating.
Despite our celebration of independence on this day, however, the extent to which we are actually and in fact independent has fallen increasingly into question over recent decades. The 20th century, rightly known as "the American century," peaked at its midpoint, immediately following the Second World War, at which point the United States bestrode the world like a colossus, being a military, economic and moral power without peer, able to set up institutions like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund sculpted to our specifications.
The second half of the century, however, saw American power beginning to slip, as the Soviet Union rose to the status of superpower alongside and in opposition to us, and the long Cold War split much of the world into two camps: the "free West," and the Soviet bloc, behind its Iron Curtain, and more-or-less allied powers such as the Chinese Communists and their East Asian allies. Although we won that war, too, it was not without cost.
American power was shaken in a different way when the Arab oil embargo in 1973 highlighted the end of American energy independence. Around the same time, the persistence of the Viet Cong and the rise of domestic opposition to the war in Vietnam showed us the limits of military power in pursuing asynchronous warfare against determined insurgents. And not long after that, the rise of militant Islam - first in the Iranian revolution, but rapidly spreading throughout the Middle East - introduced us to the next great ideological challenge, which would eventuate in al-Qaida and the tragedy of 9/11.
All these, however, are outward threats, and outward threats can be combated. More dangerous to our liberties and independence are internal threats - some of them arising in response to external dangers, but thereupon taking on a life of their own. Among these are the rise of corporate plutocracy, revealing that raw and unrestrained capitalism can be just as big a threat to democracy as communism; the rise of the surveillance state, in which many Americans have so far been willing to accept what to some of us is a frightening diminution of our privacy in the name of alleged security; and a dismaying blurring of the roles of military and police, with an increasing paramilitarization of police forces and a willingness to use the military for domestic enforcement, coupled with a tendency to view the American public as actual or potential adversaries.
There are others, but those seem to be the "Big Three," to me. So as we celebrate Independence Day this year, let us by all means be thankful for the liberties and independence our forebears won for us. But let us not forget the classic admonitions that power corrupts, and that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Happy Independence Day.

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