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Saturday, July 5, 2008
July 4, Give or Take a Day

Obviously, Independence Day has a lot to do with freedom. But what does it have to do with bungee jumping?

My own most memorable Independence Day so far is the one I chronicled here last year, on its 20th anniversary. I spent that one in Moscow, which was then the capital city and very much the spiritual center of an empire which no longer exists, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Many Russians long for a return of some sort of empire, but that is not today's topic.

I did not intend to think or write about bungee jumping in connection with Independence Day. And, no, I didn't go bungee jumping yesterday. Most of the day was rather predictable and prosaic.

I spent much of Independence Day working. I always seem to have to work extra hard and extra long before a vacation, in order to be ready to leave my work for a week or so. On one hand, it doesn't sound very patriotic. On the other hand, perhaps a lot of the patriotism that matters is work. In any case, I worked at home, I worked at church, and I worked at work. That's what I'll have to do to catch up after vacation, too. I'll spare you the obvious question.

My day took a decidedly appropriate turn when a neighbor dropped by in the early afternoon. I won't tell you his name, because I didn't ask him if I could write about him. I won't tell you what we talked about, either, as we sat on my front porch for almost an hour. But I will tell you that he is a highly-decorated veteran of multiple wars, that he is now retired, and that his battle injuries have only begun to take their toll. Ten years from now it will be apparent that the price he paid to protect you and me was actually far higher than it presently appears.

I thought about him off and on through the afternoon and evening, as we drove through northern Utah and southern Idaho on our way to parts northwest. How could we ever thank or honor him enough?

And what, you wonder, does any of this have to do with bungee jumping?

When Seattle-bound, which we are as I write this, we always stop in Twin Falls to have a picnic on the brim of the Snake River Canyon. Last time we were there, we watched bungee jumpers diving off the nearby Perrine Bridge, once the highest bridge in the world. This time, as we approached, a number of police cars screamed onto the bridge and stopped approximately at the center of it, at the usual jumping-off point. It wasn't hard to deduce that someone had jumped off the bridge and fallen, either intentionally or accidentally, all the way to the Snake River 486 feet below. An ambulance soon appeared, without lights or siren, and drove unhurriedly down the road that leads into the gorge. Clearly, there was nothing to hurry for; this was a recovery, not a rescue.

An EMT type we met in the parking lot suggested we keep the children away from the viewpoint where onlookers were gathering, because there was something down below that we wouldn't want them to see. In fact, none of us actually looked down into the gorge to where the action was. We picnicked a short distance away, as onlookers kept arriving. When we reached our hotel in Meridian, Idaho, with its high-speed Internet connection, I ran a Google News search, wondering whether the incident at Twin Falls was suicide, accident, or foul play. I found nothing about it, just a week-old report that two women walking across the same bridge the week before had with considerable difficulty stopped a man from committing suicide.

The specific occasion for celebrating the Fourth of July is the anniversary of our Declaration of Independence from the British crown. In other words, our nation, or more precisely the colonies that would eventually become our nation, announced their freedom the mother nation. Appropriately, we also celebrate our individual freedoms, because they were largely the motive for wanting independence, and getting independence was an important step toward securing them.

This national independence is a solemn thing. A nation, having become independent, is essentially free to prosper according to its own lights, or to commit national suicide (usually slowly but sometimes quickly). No, I'm not on the verge here of suggesting that our nation is using its independence to jump off a bridge into the deep, metaphysical gorge of history; that's a little too obvious and a little too dark for me just now.

In the absence of firmer knowledge, let's suppose that the Independence Day incident at Twin Falls was a bungee jump gone horribly wrong. Doesn't it make you wonder why there isn't a law banning bungee jumping? Yes, I know that bungee jumpers almost always survive. If they didn't, most of them would find some other way to get their adrenaline high. But even if bungee jumping deaths are relatively rare, the fact remains that people are somewhat less likely to die while bungee jumping if they do not engage in bungee jumping. For example, let us suppose (rather safely) that I will never bungee jump. The likelihood that I will die bungee jumping is exactly zero. If I were a bungee jumper, the odds would be slightly higher.

So why not make a law prohibiting bungee jumping? Is the freedom to bungee jump so fundamental to our present and our future that it ought to be protected, despite the occasional, unnecessarily, arguably foolish loss of life?

Think about freedom for a moment. Back in the USSR the people were perfectly free to vote. Usually there was only one candidate, but the people were perfectly free to vote for him.

Now you're shaking your head and wanting to tell me it was a pretty meaningless freedom, and you're right. If people are going to be free in any meaningful way, they have to be free to choose a candidate -- or more significantly, an action or a lifestyle -- other that the one the government thinks is best for them. I'm not saying they have to be shielded from the consequences of their choices, which in the Twin Falls episode apparently involved gravitational acceleration followed by rapid and catastrophic deceleration. (If you want to hear it sometime, I'll tell you why I think we're not really free if we are fully shielded from the consequences of our choices.) I am saying that protecting my own freedom to do what I think is good for me is pretty hard to do, unless I am also committed to protecting your freedom to do what I think is bad for you.

This realization seems to be rarer, these days. People seem unwilling to acknowledge that protecting my own freedom of speech requires that I protect others' freedom to say things I don't like, even things I hate. The same is certainly true of my freedom of religion, which is in serious jeopardy as soon as I decide that you should not enjoy the same freedom to practice an entirely different religion.

The last two or three paragraphs might make you wonder if I'm a libertarian, but I'm not. I don't favor the legalization of marijuana, for example, and I don't favor the abolition of seat belt laws. My freedom to self-destruct at society's expense probably should not be absolute. But I do think that we ought to be very cautious about restricting freedom, even in matters that seem unimportant in the grand scheme of things, such as bungee jumping.

I am inclined to think that most of the time when people say, "There ought to be a law," they're wrong.

David Rodeback comments (7/12/08):

In case you're interested in the actual fact of the matter, not just my hypothetical, the incident at Twin Falls turns out to have been a suicide, not a bungee jumping accident.

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