The Promise of Freedom

This year marked the 25th anniversary of my arrival in the United States, and as the cliché goes, it feels like yesterday. Memories of war and life in a refugee camp penetrate my consciousness daily. The life of cruel suffering, being witness to genocide, and struggles as a refugee and later as an immigrant are part of my ontological makeup. Such events change you in previously unimaginable ways—fostering emotional strength but also existential fatigue. 

I left Bosnia at the end of 1992, almost a year into the war. It was a cold and miserable day but the overwhelming emotion of leaving my father, as well as the fear that a sniper or a mortar shell might end my life, made me forget about my body’s reaction to the weather. The buses were lined up, forming a convoy of women and children bound for the Czech Republic. Some cried, some held the tears back in a futile effort to battle the reality of the absurd situation. The bus I was on was first in line, and it filled up pretty quickly. There was nowhere for me to sit, so I alternated between standing and sitting on my suitcase. 

My mother urged me to remain calm. She has always been the stoic one, and I tried to follow that lead in this situation. My two-year-old cousin (my mother’s nephew), whose mother was brutally killed by a mortar shell, was sitting quietly and almost politely as if any trace of still being a toddler had been erased. Even he must have sensed that we were going on a journey into the unknown. 

I barely glanced at my father as we left. In the entire chaos and confusion, I didn’t have a chance to hug him. I could see him through the bus window, his face revealing a man deep in his thoughts and full of uncertainty about whether we would ever see each other again. The thought had crossed my mind but it floated away just as quickly because I was certain that the war would end in a few months. It turned out to be a few years. And this parting would be the last time I saw my father. He died in Bosnia, barely a month after I arrived in America. 

As much as the war was a difficult and bizarre experience punctuated by an unbearable boredom, life in a refugee camp brought its own challenges. In the almost four years of living in one room, I went through moments of great pain but also great elation. What could possibly be elevating about a life in a refugee camp, you might ask. True, I was now a stateless person, and the living arrangements were hardly comfortable. But I focused on learning the Czech language, I explored the country’s history and culture, and I had an opportunity to attend the Gymnasium, a prestigious secondary school of long-standing European cultural tradition.

Of course, all of this was mixed in with less than ideal living arrangements, tensions between women and children in the camp, and the sheer frustration at the war. The end was nowhere in sight. Yet, in all of this, I retained my interior dignity and freedom. Neither war nor my status as a refugee could bring me down, and take away the inherent humanity and freedom of thought that were mine whatever outside oppressions befell me. There was also a sense of hope, whether from the fact that I was younger or that I was getting ready to come to America. For me, America was the Promised Land, and I imagined a better life. 

After a quarter century, however, it may seem strange to say that I felt more freedom in that refugee camp than I am experiencing today. Life in America now has been tainted by various ideologies, which have curtailed that promise of freedom. Freedom of speech has been eroding for years now, even before the absurdity of the COVID crisis. As a conservative with libertarian tendencies, I noticed that I had to keep quiet about my views, especially during my time in academia as a graduate student. My instinct of “overcome and adapt,” which I have been using since the war, kicked in and I managed to make the best of every situation. But at what cost? If you keep decreasing your authentic self, then what remains of you? This is especially true in a country that is supposed to allow for the possibility of a good and flourishing life. The cognitive dissonance is jarring. This is the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Liberty has been eroded even more so in the past year. The restrictions brought on by COVID have been preposterous, and have further dehumanized people. Mostly, the ridiculous impositions have eliminated our ability to plan and work toward a better life. The American Dream may be full of uncomfortable realities, and some people face bigger challenges than others, but this dream still represents the possibility of individual success. It is not an illusion because the founding of America was not an illusion but a clear and courageous reality. People have lived in this country more decently and humanely than in any other place on earth.

Still, the founders understood that there is no such thing as pure freedom. One can’t be purely individual without the regard for the other. As William F. Buckley, Jr. said in a 1970 interview for Playboy, “…a perfectly consistent, schematic libertarianism would give you an easy answer—let anybody do anything. Including cocaine vending machines. But a libertarianism written without reference to social universals isn’t terribly useful.” Buckley understood, as did the founders, the moral conditions of freedom. The very concept of “the good life” is an acknowledgement that human nature establishes both limits and purpose to the sovereign self. We find ourselves on the threshold of another tyranny. Is it actually happening, or is the ideological and political elite (mainly consisting of leftists) giving us an appearance of tyranny with a purpose to disrupt the order of things? Are they trying to disorient Americans and make them look irrational for questioning this elusive and undefined tyranny? It is as yet undefined because it relies on a constantly changing stream of information aided by the social media format. It depends on rage or as Bill Maher recently said, “panic porn,” which further decreases freedom. The chaos is the means through which uncertainty reigns supreme. This, in turn, negates independence. 

At this point, we don’t need fuzzy platitudinous tweets about America from Republican politicians. It’s bad enough that we have to listen to the Democrats and self-described socialists spewing hatred and suicidal thoughts of the destruction of America. What we need right now is what we might call “politics for adults.” 

There are forces that are destabilizing this country with an explicit purpose to erase America’s sovereignty. No American who values both freedom and independence, as well as the very idea of the sovereign self, should settle for a bunch of shrill talking points. The only way we can move beyond this is if reason and hope prevail. 

About Emina Melonic

Emina Melonic is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness. Originally from Bosnia, a survivor of the Bosnian war and its aftermath of refugee camps, she immigrated to the United States in 1996 and became an American citizen in 2003. She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Her writings have appeared in National Review, The Imaginative Conservative, New English Review, The New Criterion, Law and Liberty, The University Bookman, Claremont Review of Books, The American Mind, and Splice Today. She lives near Buffalo, N.Y.

Photo: (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

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