At a lecture in Cleveland in March, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told the audience, “Most of the rights that you enjoy go way beyond what the Constitution requires.” The government can legitimately scale back individual rights during wartime, he explained, since “the Constitution just sets minimums.” For an increasing number of Americans, it seems, even such minimums are excessive. Last August, the Freedom Forum’s annual First Amendment survey showed that 49 percent of those polled said the Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees, a ten-point jump since the last survey, conducted just before 9/11. In the wake of the recent war and the triumphalism that has followed, it’s a fair guess that in this summer’s survey, the numbers will climb even higher.
While we’ve seen a flood of antiwar activity over the past eight months, we’ve also witnessed a powerful countercurrent of political repression. From shopping malls to cyberspace, Hollywood to the Ivy League, Americans have taken it upon themselves to stifle and shame those who question the legitimacy of the Administration or the war on Iraq. When we read a story here or there about the arrest of a man wearing a “Peace on Earth” T-shirt in an upstate New York mall, or about country music fans crushing Dixie Chicks CDs because the lead singer said she was ashamed of the President, each may seem like an anomalous episode. But taken as a whole, the far-flung incidents of bullying, silencing and even threats of violence reveal a political and cultural shift that recalls some of America’s darkest days.
Like any avalanche, this one started at the top, and likely dates back to the moment after 9/11 when President Bush warned the world’s nations, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” From Bush on down, in the months that followed, government officials drew limits around acceptable speech. White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer told Americans to “watch what they say.” Such words gained force when the Patriot Act gave the government extensive new powers to spy, interrogate and detain. When civil libertarians began to protest the curbing of constitutional rights, Attorney General John Ashcroft offered a forbidding rejoinder: “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists.” These kinds of remarks from our government’s top leaders, says Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, have granted ordinary people license “to shut down alternative views.” The Administration has fashioned a domestic arm of its new doctrine of pre-emption.
Rashes of American conformity and nativism have broken out before during periods of war, social strain and insecurity over national self-definition. During World War I, the McCarthy period and the COINTELPRO program of three decades ago, dissenters lost their jobs, went to jail and endured mob violence or government smears. Today’s crackdowns do not match the force and scale of those shameful times, or take the same forms. History rarely repeats precisely those excesses, which have since been declared dishonorable or unconstitutional. Though Phil Donahue was recently fired for his views, and charities have been canceling events with antiwar celebrities such as Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, the Hollywood blacklist itself, says historian Howard Zinn, could not happen again. Still, while the government expands its power even as it loosens constitutional limitations on it, the public acquiescence–and participation–in suppression threatens American democracy anew.