War skeptics such as Richard Gere, Susan Sontag, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), Bill Maher and the Berkeley City Council should be congratulated, not vilified, for daring to demur, ever so slightly, from government propaganda. Right or wrong, they have acted as free people in a free society who understand that if our course is correct, it can survive criticism. And if it is not, it is all the more important that we gather the courage to state that criticism clearly and in a timely fashion.
It’s shocking that so few have raised doubts and that the ones who have are called wimps, traitors and worse, with their lives threatened by cowards hiding behind anonymous letters and phone calls. It is no badge of courage to blindly accept the actions taken in our name by our government.
Let me be clear: Terrorism as exemplified by the murders of Sept. 11 and the anthrax scare that has followed needs to be stopped, fast and efficiently. However, there is no blueprint for accomplishing that, and as a free, self-ruling democratic people, it is not only our right but our responsibility to vigorously and openly debate the issues: the use of military force, our foreign policy, civil rights and privacy in a time of war, and so on. “America Unites” sounds great as a news logo, but unity is no simple concept. We all want our families, our soldiers, our unions, our sports teams to be united toward clear, common goals. But is it not dangerous for a democratic populace weighing if and how to wage war to value unity above all else? It’s all too easy to mandate patriotism, as the New York Board of Education did last week, bringing back the pledge of allegiance to classrooms as if that will stop the Osama bin Ladens of the world.
To understand the limits of government-sponsored “unity,” we might ask the soldiers of the old Soviet Union. They marched with their pledges and anthems into the treacherous terrain of Afghanistan two decades ago, while at home the dissent that could have saved them from military and economic disaster was systematically squelched.
Authoritarian societies inevitably crumble because they silence the critics who could save them from the errors of blind hubris. Dissent is not a luxury to be indulged in the best of times but rather an obligation of free people, particularly when the very notion of dissent is unpopular. This is why our nation’s founders enshrined the Bill of Rights, within a few years of fighting a revolution in which one-third of their compatriots were sympathetic to the British king. They were painfully aware of the inconvenience of dissent to those who govern–even in times of war–but they valued it as essential to democracy.
The US Supreme Court clearly understood this when it ruled that mandatory recitation of the pledge of allegiance–even before the divisive words “under God” were inserted–was unconstitutional. “To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds,” wrote Justice Robert H. Jackson for the majority in 1943. This was, remember, at the height of World War II, when the war’s outcome was very much in doubt.
If we discourage dissent now, we will give terrorists the victory they sought by destroying what they most hate about our society: its commitment to unfettered thought and expression. And if we who have hard questions about the path our leaders are taking don’t speak up, we may be party to a more tangible defeat: a continuing erosion of security in a divided world we don’t always seem to understand.