d i s s e n t  

t o m  a l l e n


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


See also:

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 Library

The Constitution Project See also,Liberty and Security Initiative Releases First Amendment Report

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 (pdf) on 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 McNamara

Where are the Weapons?,” Katherine McNamara





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