The sound of silence
Perhaps we are beginning to recall that difference. We had better knowledge of it in the period of the Cold War, after World War II, when the examples of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Maoist China towered over our imagination. It was truly said of these dreadful regimes that they were ruled by terror and silence. Indeed, the two go hand in hand; Elie Wiesel said that “silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
German Protestant pastor Martin Niemoller, who spent World War II in concentration camps, spoke of silence in these famous terms:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.
And historian Robert Conquest, chronicler of the Great Terror under Stalin, made clear how silence fed on terror – as well as vice versa – in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. Here he evokes, by comparison, the character of the Great Terror* (all emphasis added):
Russia had undergone the Terror before … [During the Civil War] it was, as it were, a hot Terror. Injustices and brutalities were perpetrated throughout the country; but they were seldom part of a big planned operation from above. They were, rather, fierce and uncontrolled blows at an enemy ready and able to strike back in kind. And they were openly described in their true colors. Those were indeed terrible days, when the Cheka squads were shooting class hostages in scores and hundreds. Those who went through them might have thought that nothing could be worse. …
Stalin attained … control of the country at a time when conditions were calm. … It was in cold blood, quite deliberately and unprovokedly, that Stalin started a new cycle of suffering. … [T]he Great Terror was launched cold-bloodedly at a helpless population. …
He compares the feel and sense of life under the Terror to life in the trenches of World War I:
In the First World War, as Robert Graves notes in Goodbye to All That, a soldier could stand the squalor and danger of the trenches only for a certain time. After that the wear and tear became too great. … “At six months, he was still more or less all right; but by nine or ten months … he became a drag on the other officers. After a year or fifteen months, he was often worse than useless.” Men went about their tasks “in an apathetic and doped condition, cheated into further endurance.” …
What is so hard to convey about the feeling of Soviet citizens through 1936-38 is the similar long-drawn-out sweat of fear, night after night, that the moment of arrest might arrive before the next dawn. The comparison is reasonable even as to the casualty figures. The risk was a big enough one to be constantly present. And again, while under other dictatorships arrests have been selective, falling on genuinely suspected enemies of the regime, in the Yezhov era, just as in the mud-holes of Verdun and Ypres, anyone at all could feel that he might be the next victim.
Fear by night, and a feverish effort by day to pretend enthusiasm for a system of lies, was the permanent condition of the Soviet citizen. …
And what was a core element of this condition?
Everyone was isolated. The individual, silently objecting, was faced with vast meetings calling for the death “like dogs” of the opposition leaders, or approving the slaughter of the generals. How could he know if they were not genuine, or largely so? There was no sign of opposition or even neutrality; enthusiasm was the only visible phenomenon.
In a speech at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in 1995, Conquest spoke thus of the terror and famine in the Ukraine in the early 1930s:
To conceal the failure people had to be cured by every means of terrorism of the habit of thinking and judging for themselves and forced to see what did not exist, to assert the very opposite of what their eyes told them, and hence, he says, the extreme viciousness of the terror of 1937-1939 which followed.
Now, this suppression of the truth, I think, is the crucial point in what led to what the Soviet Union ended up as for the last 50 years. There were two Soviet Unions, the real one, wonderful figures, wonderful population, wonderful production, happiness, workers waving banners, and the other one, the misery and terror. And when you come to the famine it was actually illegal to talk about it, to use the word “famine” or “starvation” even in the famine areas. Anybody who said that was accused of spreading Hitler’s propaganda. People who were actually seeing people dying and said they’re starving, were arrested.
This was reported on the spot by Arthur Keestler in Kharkov at the time. A blanket of silence was over the country.
Great evil requires silence. Merely speaking out does not always defeat it, but silence in the face of it is always evil’s ally.
One of mankind’s greatest problems is that silence is, first, too comfortable, and then becomes to seem the only option when all around us is framed in fear. The sound of freedom, by contrast, is not a comfortable sound.
The sound of freedom
I have for many years liked to couch the sound of freedom in terms of the Navy metaphor. In the U.S. Navy, the sound of jet engines roaring on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier is called the sound of freedom. For those directly under the flight deck, on what is called the “O-3” level of the ship, the sound is like nothing else on earth: like all the hounds of hell loosed at once; urgent, snarling, cacophonous. The roar takes over everything in its vicinity, drowning out thought and speech. One by one, the thundering jets taxi, load on the catapult, rev against the jet blast deflector, and then are flung off of the ship in a sharp jolt. Yes, the enormous, 90,000-ton aircraft carrier, warrior queen of the seas, with the equivalent of an 11-storey building beneath the water line, actually lurches and shudders with the catapult of each jet from the flight deck.
And then, a seemingly short time later, all the jets come back, and each recovery is marked by another sharp jolt as the great cables known as the “wires” snag the tailhooks, one by one, and the pilots thrust the engines into afterburner, in case the “wire” snaps under the jet’s groaning power, and the pilot needs to rocket off the deck again.
For those who live and work on the O-3 level, as on the flight deck, the sound of freedom rules their diurnal rhythms. And there is unquestionably a level of discomfort in it. But it has other characteristics as well. It is purposeful. It has an objective, and a measure of success or failure. It begins and ends. It is overt, honest, without guile or pretense.
It is orchestrated, according to a set of agreed rules and principles, and there is a method of assigning responsibility.
But it cannot be centrally controlled. Its successful operation depends on both the initiative and the discipline of literally thousands of individuals, most of whom are not directly participating in any given flight event.
In fact, its very viability as a form of national power depends on the unguided initiative and discipline of tens of millions of Americans who will never participate in naval aviation and who know almost nothing about it. Its purpose is not focused on itself, but on guarding the political conditions in which those millions live lives dedicated to love, joy, child-rearing, wealth-generation, invention, creativity, and compassion. Like freedom, naval aviation does not exist for itself, but for the blessings it guarantees for us.
Some tend it for us, for a time, and then move on and let others take their place. But we all live inside its protection. We can choose how much time we spend with the noise and urgency and danger – with only the stipulation that the noise must be there, and that someone must spend time with it.
The sound of freedom can be ugly and offensive. We do not always like it. But it, and only it, produces the best that mankind has been able to leave as a legacy to its children. Contrary to the assumption of statists, we cannot narrowly direct or constrain how the sound of freedom is to do this in any generation. We must let the freedom do its work. We must accept the noise, even though much of the time it is unedifying, at best, and it too often tends to keep us up at nights.
Because sometimes, out of this noise, this sound of freedom, but never out of silence, we get words like these:
And now the Soviets themselves may, in a limited way, be coming to understand the importance of freedom. We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness. …
Are these the beginnings of profound changes in the Soviet state? … We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace.
General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
Very occasionally, out of this noise, this sound of freedom, and never out of silence, we get words like these:
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
And once in a thousand generations, out of this noise, this sound of freedom – but never, not once, out of silence – we get words like these:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America:
IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
The 56 signatures on the Declaration
Thomas Heyward, Jr.
Thomas Lynch, Jr.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton
Richard Henry Lee
Thomas Nelson, Jr.
Francis Lightfoot Lee
Robert Treat Paine
May God always bless America.
Let freedom ring.
* Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (New York: The McMillan Company, 1968). All quotations from pp. 277-79