ot long ago, a
fifth-grade teacher spoke at a community meeting I held in Southern
Maine. He was distraught because he feared that he could not express his
opposition to the impending war in Iraq without paying a heavy price. In
a poem written earlier, he raised similar concerns. It reads, in part:
I had my class write the troops
I asked for a kids’ support group.
Can I talk of peace?
I am told:
Say the pledge; sing the anthem; skip the question....
Americans, of course, can dissent.
Yet we must be patriotic.
Can a good American dissent?
I am told:
Say the pledge; sing the anthem; skip the question.
“To strike freedom of the mind with the fist of patriotism is an old
and ugly subtlety,” Adlai E. Stevenson, Jr. said half a century ago. Yet
that is what threatened to silence this intrepid teacher, along with
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, Senator John Kerry, actors Tim
Robbins and Susan Sarandon, the Dixie Chicks, a hapless New York shopper
sporting a peace message on his T-shirt, and
countless others who have been chastised, arrested, banned, dis-invited
or intimidated by accusations that dissent is “unpatriotic.”
“War never leaves a nation where it found it,” remarked the
eighteenth-century British statesman Edmund Burke. America’s war in Iraq
and war against terrorism are no exception. Since September
11, 2001, the United States has not only
challenged its enemies with our military power, but, purportedly in
support of that effort, challenged our own people’s right to speak out.
A growing hostility to views out of sync with the President’s war plans
is apparent in the halls of Congress, the media, schools, and other
places where there should be a lively debate over American policy.
The eerie silence and one-sided view of reality has been fueled by
statements and polices coming from the White House and Republican
Congressional leaders. The doctrine, “You’re either with us or against
us,” first applied internationally after September 11th
, has been alarmingly directed at domestic political discourse.
As Attorney General John Ashcroft told a Senate Committee: “To those who
scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is
this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national
unity and diminish our resolve.”
Sadly, the erosion of liberty is no phantom. Attorney General
Ashcroft himself, to quote Burke again, has orchestrated “[t]he true
danger[,]…when liberty is nibbled away, for expedients, and by parts.”
Among other things, he banned public and media access to deportation
hearings in federal court and ordered U.S.
citizens to be treated as “military combatants,” held without charge,
and tried without access to counsel or meaningful judicial review. He
issued guidelines (rejected by the secret intelligence court) that would
have allowed prosecutors to direct searches without the law’s
requirement of probable cause.
Likewise, Ashcroft planned Operation TIPS,
which would have encouraged citizens to spy on each other. He rewrote
guidelines allowing the FBI to attend every
worship service, political demonstration, and public gathering, enter
every Internet chat room, and look at commercial records that reveal an
individual’s buying preferences and travel and Internet records. All
this information can now be gathered by the government whether or not
there is any evidence of criminal behavior by the individual.
Under proposed legislation Ashcroft is drafting – the so-called
Patriot Act II – a host of sweeping new powers
would be authorized, including allowing the secret detention of American
citizens held in connection with a terror investigation, obtaining
credit card and library records without a warrant, and repealing limits
on local police spying on religious and political activity.
Public debate is also being stifled by a lack of balance and
competing viewpoints in the media. There is little to offset the
jingoistic reporting of cable TV and talk radio
shows. On Fox News, editorial comment has come to replace news
reporting. When MSNBC’s Ashleigh Banfield pointed
out the one-sided coverage of the war, she was roundly criticized by the
media, and even NBC refused to back her up.
The news sources Americans rely on are increasingly controlled by a
handful of owners, many with conservative political agendas that
dovetail with the Administration’s. Clear Channel, for example, now owns
about 1,200 radio stations, and its owners have
sponsored “support the troop” rallies. Performers who espouse anti-war
views are afraid they will be banned from the air if they speak their
mind. Indeed, a Colorado station recently suspended two disc jockeys for
playing songs by the Dixie Chicks.
The Federal Communications Commission has just given the green light
for further concentration of media ownership. On June 2,
the FCC, voting along partisan lines, narrowly
adopted new regulations that lift the ban prohibiting a newspaper from
buying a television or radio broadcast station in the same city. The new
rules also allow television networks to buy more affiliate stations.
Americans define ourselves by our freedom to question and criticize.
If we surrender those rights, through the force of law, by intimidation,
or as a result of ignorance, we compromise our very identity and the
cause for which we fight.
N.B.: A version of this article appeared in The Bangor
Daily News, May 17-18, 2003
Rep. Tom Allen
Sen. Russell Feingold, “On
Opposing the USA PATRIOT Act”
Library of Congress, “Legislation
Related to the Attack of September 11, 2001”
Library of Congress, “HR3162: Uniting and Strengthening America
by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct
Terrorism (USA PATRIOT ACT) Act of 2001”
The American Library Association,
The USA PATRIOT Act in the
The Constitution Project
See also, “Liberty and Security Initiative Releases First
Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression
“The September 11 Detainees: A Review of the Treatment of Aliens
Held on Immigration Charges in Connection with the Investigation of
the September 11 Attacks June 2003,” Office of the Inspector
General, Department of Justice
“FCC Set to Vote on Easing Media Ownership Rules,” Frank Ahrens,
Washington Post, June 2, 2003
A draft of the proposed
“Patriot II” Act
Detailed critiques of the Patriot II draft:
Center for Public Integrity
The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, 98-page report
post-Sept. 11 civil liberties
The Electronic Privacy Information Center, PATRIOT-related site
About Operation TIPS, see, inter alia, Lawyers Committee
for Human Rights, “A Year of Loss,” Chapter 2
In Archipelago, see:
“A year in Washington,” Katherine McNamara
“Patriotism and the Right of Free Speech in Wartime,” Katherine
“Where are the Weapons?,” Katherine