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The Freedoms And The Fallen We Honor

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Americans often read our founding documents as if they pertained to another place and time, but the ideals enshrined therein are as true today as then, the struggles described as difficult. This year perhaps more than any before we would do well to use the opportunity of Memorial Day to remind ourselves of the freedoms, unique in all the world and modeled since, for which untold Americans over the course of more than two centuries have fought or even given their lives.

The greatest of the freedoms we enjoy are those affirmed, after independence was won, in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

These freedoms are the true genius of America. The freedoms to speak freely, to practice any religion or none at all, and to have an independent and inquiring press are precious beyond measure. As such, we must guard them vigilantly, and defend them against legislated subversion, for history instructs us that once freedoms are restricted in the name of "protecting" freedom, they cannot be won back without a struggle.

As Americans, we are defined not by our military, our leaders, nor our culture. We're defined by our ideals. The ideals on which this country was founded, and by which we live, are our profound inheritance. They are every generation's to safeguard, or to squander.

As Americans, we hold foremost dear the ideal that people and the press should be free to speak of politics or religion without fear of government or private retribution. In fact, we should remind ourselves that they should be encouraged to do so. After all, democracy itself is an ideal, and it needs idealism. And criticism. And the ar guments that follow.

A democracy invites and tolerates the clash of opinions, and understands its obligation to search for common ground. A democracy recognizes that there are intelligent people supporting each side of every issue. Every truth has an answering truth. There exists no issue facing us truly as simple as a choice between two absolutes. If we cannot have open discourse about the ideals by which we live, then we do not live in a democracy.

Upholding the ideal of democracy means never suppressing an opposing opinion. Upholding the ideal of democracy means never dissuading ourselves from speaking out, despite those who would criticize, ridicule, or otherwise attempt to prevent us from doing so. After all, contrary opinion is not treason; dissent is not weakness in the national resolve. Freedom dies when citizens follow leaders without question.

Democracy begins in conversation, and ends in silence. It is fueled by truth, and crippled by fear. By reminding ourselves this and every Memorial Day that the survival of our democracy and our ideals rests on our freedom to think and speak our minds, we honor our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, and the countless Americans who have died to defend them.
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Todd Huffman is a pediatrician and writer living in Eugene, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to many newspapers and publications throughout the Pacific Northwest.
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