Sebastian Junger is a journalist, filmmaker, and New York Times bestselling author of such books as “The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea,” “Fire,” “War,” and his latest, “Freedom” (published by Simon & Schuster, a division of ViacomCBS).
Years ago, some buddies and I walked up the East Coast along the railroad lines, sleeping under bridges, drinking out of creeks, and cooking over campfires. It was a kind of high-speed vagrancy that saw us pass through everything – farms, ghettos, suburbs, wildlands – that make up this great country.
Once we walked through Chester, Pennsylvania, a small but dangerous town that has recently tripled the murder rate in nearby Philadelphia. It was a warm fall day, and I saw a man drinking on his front porch. He raised his beer as we passed by, and I stopped to ask him what he loved most about America.
“Freedom!” he said without hesitation. “It’s a free country!”
The man was African American, and lived in an exceedingly poor, broken community. It seemed like a kind of moral victory that he would remain focused on freedom despite the injustice of his circumstances.
My father grew up in Europe and fled fascism in Spain and then in France, and he told me that he came to America because he knew that freedom and democracy would never fail here. He always made sure to tell me that many thousands of Americans were buried in his home country of France, where they had died fighting for the most basic freedom there is: that no one, no matter how powerful, can wield cruel and arbitrary authority over anyone else.
The same can be said about American revolutionaries who overthrew English rule, and Union forces that defeated slaveholding Confederate states during the Civil War.
I believe that my father – a theoretical physicist who spoke with an accent – and the man on his front porch in Chester would have had a huge amount to talk about.
American democracy has survived every single attack upon it, including al Qaeda’s fourth airplane, which wasuntil passengers forced it down into a field in Pennsylvania. Twenty years later, : it’s the heart of our democracy, and they wanted to intimidate and control us.
We may know the greatness of our country, it seems, by the cruelty of our foes.
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Story produced by Young Kim. Editor: Jaroslaw Ziaja.