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James Whorton Jr.

My Time Machine

In his address to Americans on the Sunday after Saddam Hussein was captured, President Bush hit pretty heavily on one goal of the Iraq war: "the rise of a free Iraq," or as he put it again, "the rise of liberty in the heart of the Middle East."

This is powerful language for Americans, who talk often of the liberty that their country's founders gambled and fought for. Citing myself as one example, I can hardly think of anything that has stung me worse than an impingement on my freedom of any kind. I will always resent being told how I should dress or spend my money, what I should or should not say, where I should live and what kind of building I should live in, and so on. Independence is the seat of dignity, for me. I assume that other Americans feel the same, more or less.

Whether Iraqis feel this way I do not know. I wonder. It is tempting to believe that people are the same wherever you go, and maybe they are. Maybe they aren't, though. Maybe my own love of freedom--and really it's more than just love, because being controlled seems not just unpleasant to me, but intolerable--maybe this love is more accidental than I know, and has something to do with my specific history and the culture I live in. Furthermore, now that I think about it, I also love routine, which is sort of the opposite of freedom.

Coming back to the President's statement, though: he spoke of the American effort to "bring hope and freedom to the Iraqi people." When he said that, my thought was that while we certainly may have brought many of them hope--I believe we have--by removing Saddam, I don't know what it means to say we are bringing them freedom. Imagine yourself as a child in third grade studying posters on the classroom wall of the Founding Fathers, led by General Washington to whom freedom was brought by the overwhelming liberating military force of a distant power. It doesn't work that way, and can't.

"Where do you get freedom?" is the question. In the United States there are many amateur historians who are forever pointing out that freeing the slaves was not the reason for the War Between the States. "It was about states' rights and self-determination," they say. Maybe they are right, and if so we might agree that the real result of the Civil War was to free the whites from slavery. They fought their war and settled that. It was another century before black Americans began to see real voting rights and equal education, and when they did it was due to their own efforts, led by black Americans like Thurgood Marshall, in the courts, and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the pulpit and the streets. The amazing thing about the "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" is this: you read it and you wish you could go back in time and give Dr. King a machine gun so he could spray these white Alabama sheriffs and Klansmen and governors who were keeping his people down. Well, you don't really wish that--and you realize that if that was what King had wanted to do, he would have done it. Instead of guns he had philosophy and scripture, which, the way he used them, still have the power long after his death to make you wring your hands.

Then you think, if only the Palestinians had an MLK.

Can we bring people freedom? Or is that like frozen waffles? You are better off making your waffles yourself, from scratch, of course. Speaking of time machines, let me get down to a specific policy question. I am working on a time machine and expect to have it operational soon. When it is, I will patent it and then offer it to the United States government to be used for the good of all humanity. I would of course not presume to define the good of all humanity by myself, since I am no expert; but my first suggestion, which I hope will be received with due consideration, since it is inspired by recent events, will be to form a coalition for the purpose of invading sixteenth-century England, there to end the despotic rule of Elizabeth Tudor, who is described in the World Book Encyclopedia as a "ludicrously vain" hereditary monarch with a "violent temper, which she did not hesitate to show by swearing, striking her courtiers, or spitting at them." If all goes as planned, within eighteen months there will have been free elections in sixteenth-century England, and America will have brought sovereignty for their country, dignity for their great culture, and for every sixteenth-century English citizen, the opportunity for a better life.

The policy question is, should we next invade the Roman Empire, preventing the crucifixion of Christ? Or, perhaps, should we all just go ahead and invade the very end of time, and go straight to glory in that fashion?

We'll decide. One thing concerns me: the English of the sixteenth century are said to have believed in witches, and I am not sure what a democracy of people who believe in witches will be like. That'll be something new to deal with.

James Whorton Jr.'s novel Approximately Heaven was published in 2003.  He lives in Tennessee.

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