Germany has marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with speeches, music and an installation of a line of lighted balloons representing the route of the 96-mile barrier to freedom. I looked up from the New York Times video of the light installation to our bookshelves, where a 2-inch square chunk of the wall has resided for most of those 25 years. The concrete is topped by a silver flame-shaped sculpture done by our son, Jeff, when he was a college student.
We like to think of it as representing a burst of freedom for the East German citizens who had been so repressed and restricted before the fall of the wall Nov. 9, 1989, and, subsequently, the Soviet Union. The Berlin Wall was such a constant reminder of government repression during the Cold War years that it seems almost impossible that it could be forgotten, yet that was the motivation for Germany’s observance.
The Times reported: “Because Berlin has so many newcomers and residents born since unification, organizers said it was important to provide a vivid reminder of what it meant to live in a city and country where families were kept apart under threat of death.”
Author Evan Osnos provides evidence of another kind of barrier to freedom in his book “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China.” Osnos describes his book as “an account of the collision of two forces: aspiration and authoritarianism.” China has tried to balance opening its society to robust free enterprise aided by travel, exchanges with other societies and Internet communications while at the same time retaining the Communist Party’s control of leadership.
Osnos, who lived in the country for eight years as a correspondent for U.S. publications, spoke with Chinese citizens trying to negotiate the boundary between their aspirations for prosperity, which the government supported, and their desire for freedom of expression, which it did not.
An example of the latter was the party’s attempt to “prevent an Internet conversation before it began — by automatically filtering sensitive words.” In June, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown prompted ever-expanding blacklist of words — democracy protests, 1989, June 4, fire, crush, redress, and more.
Failure to submit to the restrictions could result in prison for subversion of the state, according to many examples he cited. Walls can take many forms.
In our own country, First Amendment concerns have been raised over attempts by authorities to restrict media access to information. The debate continues over how much government surveillance of citizens’ correspondence should be tolerated. How much restriction of our freedom can be tolerated in the name of safety and security?
A nation that considers itself as the leader of the free world must grapple constantly with issues of freedom: How far should we push China on human rights? How can we tolerate the Assad regime in Syria as a part of the effort to destroy the ISIS threat? How to balance Israel’s wall for protection against the Palestinian plight of repression? We have our own “wall” issues to deal with.
Pieces of the wall that remain in Germany, and other reminders of it, such as the ceremonies and installation last Sunday, should represent not just the physical barriers to freedom, but those imposed in other ways, such as censorship, invasion of privacy and government secrecy.
In our house, the piece of the wall and its sculpture is a constant reminder to us that, like a flame, freedom can also be snuffed out as quickly as it flares.