Are you old enough to remember? And if so, do you remember who Harry Truman was?
Video courtesy of the Portland Oregonian
No, I'm not talking about the former president. Harry R. Truman was the 83-year-old man and owner of the Mount St. Helens Lodge at Spirit Lake who would not leave his home -- even as the seismic activity of the volcanic mountain ticked over into the red. The mountain had already been evacuated by the time of the eruption, but Harry and his 16 cats simply refused to go, despite numerous pleas from family members, friends, complete strangers and (the day before the eruption) state officials. In several interviews, Harry said he believed the danger was exaggerated and that the mountain would never hurt him, but in any case he loved his home too much to evacuate -- "If the mountain goes, I'm going with it," he once said. And on the morning of May 18, 1980, the mountain buried Harry, his cats, his stockpiled alcohol, his home, and all traces of his life on Mount St. Helens.
Americans born within the last 20 years might find this story hard to believe. After all, scientists were certain the mountain was going to blow. There had already been precursor earthquakes so strong they'd knocked old Harry right out of bed. (He responded by moving his mattress into the basement.) Everyone knew Harry was living in a danger zone. So why didn't some police officer or government official get up there and just force Harry to evacuate? He might have been hale and hearty for his age and plenty feisty, but he was still an old man and he could have been frog-marched out of there by a younger and stronger officer. The cats could have been rounded up and carted off in animal carriers. (They didn't all have to be returned to him, either... I do think at a certain point you've got enough cats.) If Harry resisted, they could have rolled a few tear gas grenades into his place and gone in after him with gas masks. He didn't have to die. It was for his own good, after all.
This is the difference between the America of 1980, in the waning years of the Carter administration, and the America of 2013, in the similarly waning years of the Obama administration. People were just as worried about Harry Truman back in 1980 as we would be if a similar person were in the same situation today. People across the United States and around the world wrote to him, begging him to think about the danger he was putting himself in, to reconsider and evacuate. State officials tried to tell him, in the soberest terms possible, that the mountain was going to explode. But Harry knew -- as most American adults understood in 1980 -- that he and he alone was the captain of his fate. Others were free to persuade him, and they made every effort to change his mind, but they had no right to force him to leave, even "for his own good." Harry Truman was a free man, and he chose to stay in his home and bide the danger. And in 1980, the people of America as a whole believed they had no right to intervene and abrogate his choice.
Of course, things are different now. Our conception of "freedom" has evolved in the last three decades, as intelligent and thoughtful people in positions of power have discovered that certain freedoms in the hands of the masses are simply too dangerous to be allowed. For our own good, they have passed laws and regulations that take out of our hands the right to flush three gallons of water down the toilet at once, the right to get our clothing and dishes really clean, the right to smoke in or near bars and restaurants and public parks and pretty much anywhere else, the right to ride a bicycle without a helmet, the right to make politically incorrect comments in public, the right to buy all sorts of potentially dangerous objects from handguns to 100-watt incandescent lightbulbs. We cannot get aboard airplanes without undergoing a public strip search. We cannot buy fast food without having all those empty calories barked at us from the menu board. And we cannot drink a Big Gulp without having Mayor Bloomberg breathe down our necks about it. We have progressed from a nation that felt it had no right to intervene, to a nation filled with relentless busybodies.
Individual freedom has its responsibilities and its perils. When we say we are a free people, it means we understand individuals have the right to act like complete jackasses if they choose -- and to learn painful lessons from their own mistakes. Free people even have the right to make choices that endanger their own lives. When we take that right away from them for fear they'll misuse it in some way, we do a grave disservice both to individuals and to the society in which they live. Too much of this creates a society of dependent, helpless serfs, incapable of acting or thinking for themselves because they've never been allowed to practice.
In some ways, I'm glad Harry Truman died when and where he did. He'd lived a full, interesting life, and he died on his own terms. Had he been forced off the mountain by people who knew better than he what was good for him -- well, I think his friend John Garrity said it best at Harry's memorial service: "The mountain and the lake were his life. If he'd left it and then saw what the mountain did to his lake, it would have killed him anyway." Evacuating Harry by force would have broken and destroyed him. You see, murder isn't the only way to take a life. You can nibble choice away, slowly, bit by bit, year by year, until the individual's freedom to choose is nothing but a few meager crumbs -- not enough to sustain the life of a free person.