It's one of those Orwellian phrases that re-emerged out of 9/11 mania: "Freedom is not free." Would its thumpers be willing to apply the same verdict to the free market, now that capitalism is capsizing and gasping for us, taxpayers, to bail it out? I doubt it. To do so would assume that we'd have learned to see past conservative ideology's doublespeak since the 1980s, when government became the free market's co-signer and freedom itself, far from being costly, was cheapened to a slogan in whose name sacrifice at home was for fools and war abroad freedom's calling card.
The dogmatic negative at the heart of "freedom isn't free" should have been a clue. The phrase has been attributed to Dean Rusk, secretary of state under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, though The New York Times used it in a small headline in 1945 to describe an American cemetery in Normandy. Gen. Matthew Ridgway, Army Chief of Staff in 1953, used it to define freedom as the difference between those who "torture their captives" and "those to whom the individual and his individual rights are sacred."
But the phrase really took off as a national verbal tick after 2001. George and Laura Bush and Dick Cheney have used the phrase at least nine times since 2001. For understandable reasons, they never defined it the way Gen. Ridgway did. They never defined it at all.
Ridgway's nuances aside, the phrase is fortune-cookie bunk anyway. Of course, freedom is free, and self-evidently so. Unless Thomas Jefferson had it wrong in the Declaration of Independence, freedom is one of the "unalienable rights." It's not a privilege. You're born with it. If you're in an unfree country, as most people are, you're owed it.
If you're in a free country, by all means, count your blessings, but you're entitled to your freedom. You shouldn't have to justify it, qualify it, tailor it to someone else's idea of it (unless you live in a homeowners association) let alone buy it, as countless slaves in this country had to.
Unless you infringe on somebody else's freedom, it's not even conditional. Those who make conditions are the chain-wielders who dangle freedom by the reins of its antonyms. They're those to whom "freedom is not free," by which they mean to say -- you're not.
Unquestionably, the way the phrase may have been intended -- the way Martin Luther King Jr. supposedly said it when he was hauled off to jail in Birmingham, the way it's inscribed on the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. -- is to point out that sometimes there's a price to pay to preserve what we cherish or to claim what we're owed.
Those soldiers in Normandy's sands died protecting civilization. King and countless civil rights activists died claiming the right they'd been denied for three centuries. A price was paid for freedom's sake, but never to diminish the value of freedom itself, let alone to use freedom to diminish that of others.
Which brings us to the more recent "freedom isn't free" mentality. What did Bush mean when he used the phrase, just seven weeks after the 9/11 attacks, at a high school in Maryland as he spoke of "our commitment to freedom"? What sacrifices did he have in mind, sacrifices the nation was willing to make on a grand scale? None.
Bush had one practical suggestion after 9/11: Shop. He had one policy goal: tax cuts, which he got through Congress in 2001, 2003 and 2004, making the price of freedom, which Bush confuses with the price of money, much cheaper. And he launched three full-blown wars: "terror," Afghanistan, Iraq.
Upward of 100,000 Afghans and Iraqis are dead. So are 5,467 American and allied troops.
Iraq wasn't a failed state in 2003. It is now, with neighbor Iran controlling its fate more than the United States. Afghanistan was a failed state in 2001. It still is, with neighbor Pakistan failing right along, but with nukes in its arsenals and Taliban militants twiddling their beards in the launchers' shadows. Soldiers' lives aside, Americans were asked to make not one sacrifice. They were told that "freedom" was a handout, at least in so far as it dovetailed with free market idolatry: lower taxes, cheap money and housing as a Ponzi scheme for all.
It worked fine. Until it didn't. Now, those who got us here, including that pair of Republican frauds posing as a president and would-be president, have the guile to take no responsibility themselves, to ask us for the favor of our trillion, ask us for our trust, and to add insult to depression, our vote. I bet the national debt that before this comedy of horrors is over, one of them will blurt it out once more, like a narcotic to our rage: Freedom isn't free. And it'll probably work.