Portrait of an old man ringing a bell

Iraqis go to the polls tomorrow, to vote on a new constitution, another historic step in the spread of democracy. The outcome remains to be seen.

Every one of us has a few dozen pictures engraved deeply in our minds; pictures that stay with us until we die. Some are not even personal moments; many of us vividly remember the famous tableau of soldiers raising the American flag on Iwo Jima.

One of my most cherished and dreaded images is a small photograph that appeared in Time almost forty years ago. A bearded old man is fiercely ringing a small school bell. He is in a southern province of Vietnam, at the height of the war. Free elections are being held in his village and candidates are giving their speeches. The old man's job is to ring the bell when they have used up their allotted time and must yield to the next speaker. He shakes the bell wildly and the fierce determination in his face, like that of John Brown in Currier's famous mural, proclaims, 'No! You cannot have an extra second. This is a free election and we are following the rules here!' This is a picture of a man in love with freedom.

Freedom is a delicate flower that is difficult to transplant and often doesn't survive long. Poland had it for a year when Napoleon marched through in 1812. As Mickiewicz wrote decades later in the Polish national epic Pan Tadeusz,

'Born in slavery and in chains from my swaddling clothes, I have known but one such spring in my entire life.'

The Chinese, after thousands of years of enslavement, had their one spring under SunYat—Sen in 1912. Probably no one is alive in mainland China today who remembers what it was like to live there free. Russia first tasted freedom in 1917, between the May and October revolutions. A few years ago the flower was jubilantly replanted there, but it still looks sickly and weak.

But to return to my old man: we let him down. I suppose we couldn't do anything else. We got off to a wrong start, after Kennedy betrayed Diem, nothing went right. And eventually, mired in a prolonged struggle, public support eroded and we left. I suppose we did the best we could—but nonetheless, we did let that old man down. He was very old; I hope he didn't live long enough to see his dream die.

After keeping his picture for years, I somehow lost it while moving from one house to another. Perhaps it was just as well; I couldn't look at it without a pang of guilt. But now I have another picture I recently downloaded . It shows an old woman—I think she's old but it's hard to tell, she's so covered up in her black shawl—proudly holding up a purple finger just after she voted, for the first time in her life, in Iraq earlier this year. She has a right to be proud; she risked disgrace and death to go to the polls and for all I know, she may have been killed by terrorists since. But this is her moment of triumph.

I have posted that picture on my wall and pray that I don't ever have to look on that face with shame.

Iraqis go to the polls tomorrow, to vote on a new constitution, another historic step in the spread of democracy. The outcome remains to be seen.

Every one of us has a few dozen pictures engraved deeply in our minds; pictures that stay with us until we die. Some are not even personal moments; many of us vividly remember the famous tableau of soldiers raising the American flag on Iwo Jima.

One of my most cherished and dreaded images is a small photograph that appeared in Time almost forty years ago. A bearded old man is fiercely ringing a small school bell. He is in a southern province of Vietnam, at the height of the war. Free elections are being held in his village and candidates are giving their speeches. The old man's job is to ring the bell when they have used up their allotted time and must yield to the next speaker. He shakes the bell wildly and the fierce determination in his face, like that of John Brown in Currier's famous mural, proclaims, 'No! You cannot have an extra second. This is a free election and we are following the rules here!' This is a picture of a man in love with freedom.

Freedom is a delicate flower that is difficult to transplant and often doesn't survive long. Poland had it for a year when Napoleon marched through in 1812. As Mickiewicz wrote decades later in the Polish national epic Pan Tadeusz,

'Born in slavery and in chains from my swaddling clothes, I have known but one such spring in my entire life.'

The Chinese, after thousands of years of enslavement, had their one spring under SunYat—Sen in 1912. Probably no one is alive in mainland China today who remembers what it was like to live there free. Russia first tasted freedom in 1917, between the May and October revolutions. A few years ago the flower was jubilantly replanted there, but it still looks sickly and weak.

But to return to my old man: we let him down. I suppose we couldn't do anything else. We got off to a wrong start, after Kennedy betrayed Diem, nothing went right. And eventually, mired in a prolonged struggle, public support eroded and we left. I suppose we did the best we could—but nonetheless, we did let that old man down. He was very old; I hope he didn't live long enough to see his dream die.

After keeping his picture for years, I somehow lost it while moving from one house to another. Perhaps it was just as well; I couldn't look at it without a pang of guilt. But now I have another picture I recently downloaded . It shows an old woman—I think she's old but it's hard to tell, she's so covered up in her black shawl—proudly holding up a purple finger just after she voted, for the first time in her life, in Iraq earlier this year. She has a right to be proud; she risked disgrace and death to go to the polls and for all I know, she may have been killed by terrorists since. But this is her moment of triumph.

I have posted that picture on my wall and pray that I don't ever have to look on that face with shame.