Ruth: The value of American freedoms

Times Columnist Dan Ruth. {Times file]
Times Columnist Dan Ruth. {Times file]
Published February 15 2017
Updated February 16 2017

Over four decades of scribbling, lampooning political figures, offering snarky observations on the ineptitude of government and poking fun at the self-important, bloviating big shots of society, it never occurred to me that I had anything to fear for my ramblings. It is the United States after all, where free expression, free speech and a free press are treasured freedoms, liberties I all too blithely took for granted.

Besides, I was having too much fun.

A few weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks while working as a columnist for the Tampa Tribune, I had scratched out a rather critical piece about President George W. Bush. I don't remember the topics. There was so much material.

As I settled into my desk, a few feet away sat an intern, Birusk Tugan. He was a refugee, a Turkish Kurd, who as a journalist in Istanbul had been forced to flee his homeland.

"You know, Dan," Birusk said with a wan smile, "if you had written that column in Turkey about the president, you would not have made it from your home to the office alive."

This was not fanciful hyperbole.

As a Kurd, Birusk was part of a vast Turkish population that has suffered mightily at the hands of the government. Birusk's opposition newspaper had been blown up. He had been imprisoned and tortured, his hands broken by his jailers — all for committing the treasonous sin of putting words to paper.

Since that day, I have rarely penned a column critical of my government, my president, my elected officials without momentarily reflecting on Birusk's observation. We only worked together a relatively short time before he would move on to other things, a stint with Voice of America producing documentary films on the plight of the Kurds and working with Doctors Without Borders.

He came to this country with nothing. He dealt with anti-Muslim bias. But he was not deterred. He learned English at first by watching American soap operas on television. He earned an undergraduate degree from Columbia University and a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley.

He was an intense guy, but funny, too. After 9/11, Birusk was assigned to interview students at the University of Tampa because several members of the extended bin Laden family had been attending the school on America's darkest day. His swarthiness had attracted attention, leading to someone calling the police.

We suggested perhaps he might want to change his name to Birusk O'Tugan and tell everyone he was Irish. Birusk was mildly amused.

In the wake of 9/11, Birusk became an American citizen, telling the Tribune: "I hope Sept. 11 does not provide those whose eyes cannot get used to the racial-ethnic rainbow we call America with ammunition to destroy it."

Too true. All too prescient.

We live in tenuous, fractious times. In true American fashion, the streets have been filled with all manner of protesters inveighing against President Donald Trump's administration. It's what we do. And we're pretty good at it, too.

Days ago, one of Trump's flunkies, Stephen Miller, who co-wrote the clumsy, sloppy and now discredited executive order travel ban against seven predominately Muslim countries, fulminated that: "As we begin to take further actions (it will be demonstrated) that the powers of the president to protect the country are very substantial and will not be questioned."

Uh, Mr. Miller? This is the United States. Not Turkey. We'll question the president all we want, thank you very much.

A few days ago, I learned Birusk (which is Kurdish for lightning) died while working with Doctors Without Borders at a refugee camp in northern France. The details are sketchy, but apparently he accidentally fell into the North Sea and drowned. He was 48, leaving behind a wife, 4-year-old daughter and infant son.

Birusk was forced to escape the ethnic oppression of his country precisely because he questioned the authority of the president. And he became a proud citizen of the United States precisely because of this land's freedoms to question, to oppose, to protest the government.

As we go through life we occasionally meet people who, even over a very brief time, have a profound effect on us. Birusk was one of those people.

The protesters in the streets in opposition to the Trump administration have never heard of Birusk Tugan, a brave man who paid a price for putting words to paper.

But in many ways, he is their muse.