The patriotism of criticism

Nov. 16, 2001, midnight | By Stephen Wertheim | 19 years, 2 months ago

Especially now, as America fights for its freedoms, expression of political debate must be uninhibited

The flags dotting Blazer backpacks typify most Americans' warranted response of united patriotism to the Sept 11 tragedies. But now, as bombs strike Afghanistan and as the possibility looms of attacking additional nations, overwhelming solidarity must not expand into a climate in which citizens, politicians and the media are afraid to question the government and argue against its policies. Service to this free country is best performed by open and unapologetic debate, not unbridled nationalism.

What separate America from the breeding grounds of terrorism are democracy and a free press, neither of which can function if criticism is deemed un-American. When the city council of Berkeley, California, passed an Oct 16 resolution that opposed the bombing of Afghanistan, some people called for a boycott of Berkeley businesses. Businesses based outside the vicinity then severed contracts with the city. Any continuation of those attitudes, whose narrow-mindedness evokes the Taliban's police-enforced, de facto ban on political dissent, could mean grave consequences for the very freedoms the military now defends.

Agreed is the obligation to protect American lives; however, in determining how best to do so, citizens and officials face difficult, complex and already divisive decisions. Will the U.S. target Iraq, Libya, Syria and other countries that the State Department believes harbor terrorists? How will a new Afghan government win the legitimacy of its people and its neighbors? Should support of Israel be moderated to gain Arab approval? These urgent questions require not blind deference to President George W. Bush's administration, as many politicians now practice, but instead the most full and robust public discourse possible. Instead of shying from protest, students holding views contrary to majority opinion should protest with increased intensity.

Although support for military action in Afghanistan remains strong at 88 percent, according to an Oct 25 to 26 Newsweek poll, only 48 percent feel the Bush administration has a well-thought-out plan for combating terrorism within the U.S. A CBS-New York Times poll completed Oct 28 finds that only a quarter of Americans think the military will capture or kill Osama bin Laden and only a third believe the international coalition will hold. Clearly, there is much to question concerning both homeland security and military engagement. Politicians and journalists, the public's voice, bear responsibility for reflecting these divisions in their debate and their coverage.

Political debate and media coverage expressed homogeneous viewpoints at the start of war with another country: Vietnam. Then, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, allowing the president unlimited power to conduct a conflict that would ultimately reduce sweeping political consensus to severe dissension. The Use of Force Resolution Congress promptly approved Sept 14 grants President Bush extensive power to target states, organizations or persons that "he determines" played virtually any role in the terrorist attacks, leaving citizens almost voiceless in a decision. Having in effect nullified its own legal authority to declare future terrorist-related wars, Congress can now only hope it will not later regret its myopic resolution.

Meanwhile, given the Defense Department's reluctance to divulge military information—even, as Pentagon spokespersons repeatedly make clear, after an operation terminates—congressional oversight seems to be the only means to keep the president in check. Should President Bush take advantage of the Use of Force Resolution to conduct an unjust attack akin to the 1969 bombing of Cambodia, which President Richard Nixon tried to keep secret, Congress must not hesitate to intervene.

Open domestic debate also has significant benefits for foreign policy. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, an expert on the Middle East, points out that some internal American discord may actually help persuade the Arab world to support the war in Afghanistan. "If government spokespeople have to sharpen their arguments here at home, their arguments abroad will only improve," he says. "We don't do the government any favor by giving them a free pass."

Rather than castigate protestors, the patriotic majority should realize that the country can seek truth only by allowing every argument to emerge. For the press, that means examining the reasons why thousands have marched against the war. For politicians, that means challenging popular policies to make them even better. For students, that means freely and actively pursuing any idea they believe. If the country is to return to the normalcy leaders urge, political debate must first resume. In so doing, America will show the terrorists freedom's true victory.

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Stephen Wertheim. Co-editor-in-chief Stephen Wertheim is deeply committed to reporting, even when it conflicts with such essential life activities as food consumption, sleep and viewership of Seinfeld reruns. In addition to getting carried away with writing and playing violin, Stephen thoroughly enjoys visiting and photographing spots around … More »

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