Dissent is not disloyal
Dissent in wartime can be the highest form of patriotism. If citizens believe that our military or political leaders have blundered or our reasons for fighting are unjust, they must voice these concerns if they are to meet their responsibilities in a self-governing society. Dissent is not disloyal.
Like those who support a war, those who dissent in wartime want to protect our soldiers, further our national interests and ensure that the United States is a nation of which they can be proud.
But war breeds powerful and often dangerous passions. No one wants to hear that his son or daughter, brother or sister, is putting life and limb at risk for an ignoble or futile cause. In the throes of wartime, it is easy to lose sight of the essential difference between dissent and disloyalty.
Throughout our history, a succession of irresponsible and opportunistic journalists and politicians has intentionally blurred this line to incite fear and hatred. I recently encountered just such a "journalist" firsthand.
I was invited to appear on the TV show "The O'Reilly Factor" to debate the question: "Is dissent disloyal?" After the producer and I discussed the issue, host Bill O'Reilly (according to the producer) decided to redefine the question: "Can an American who wants the United States to lose the war in Iraq be patriotic?"
Of course, this is a loaded question. It not-so-subtly implies that those who oppose the war in Iraq want the United States to lose and, worse, want American soldiers to die (as O'Reilly later actually charged). Sadly, this tactic is all too familiar in U.S. history.
In 1798, when the nation was on the verge of war with France, Federalist newspapers in defense of President John Adams characterized Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and their followers as the "worst and basest of men" who were "preying on the vitals of the country." During the Civil War, defenders of the government attacked their critics as "artful men, disguising their latent treason under hollow pretensions of devotion to the Union."
In the 1919-1920 Red Scare, during which thousands of "radicals" were rounded up for deportation in the Palmer Raids, the Chicago Tribune screamed that "it is only a middling step from Petrograd to Seattle," and the New York Tribune fumed that strikers, "red-soaked in the doctrines of Bolshevism," were plotting "a general red revolution in America." After Pearl Harbor, Henry McLemore, syndicated columnist of the Hearst newspapers, demanded "the immediate removal of every Japanese from the West Coast." He added, "Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them." The columnist Westbrook Pegler shrieked, "To hell with habeas corpus." In the 1950s, Joseph McCarthy and his minions charged that there was a plot against America and that no one could support the Democratic Party "and at the same time be against communism." He decried "liberals" whose "pitiful squealing would hold sacrosanct those communists and queers" who had sold China into "atheistic slavery." And during the Vietnam War, Vice President Spiro Agnew charged that "the leaders of the anti-war movement" were "avowed anarchists and communists who detest everything about this country and want to destroy it."
This brings me back to Bill O'Reilly. In our "debate," O'Reilly protested that he did not mean to imply anything about the loyalty of those who "merely" oppose the war in Iraq, as long as they don't "root" for the enemy. Accepting his rather peculiar framing of the issue (it is, after all, his show), I argued that a patriotic citizen could in principle want his nation to lose a war--if the war is unjust and if "losing" means that fewer soldiers and civilians will die for no good reason. After all, patriotic Italians in World War II could well have hoped Italy would lose the war, the quicker the better.
O'Reilly insisted that losing the war in Iraq would necessarily mean that more Americans would die than if we did not lose (whatever "lose" means in this context), and that no patriotic American could therefore want the United States to lose. Of course, this isn't necessarily so. A patriotic American could reasonably believe (rightly or wrongly) that we have no business being in Iraq and that the sooner we get out the better. To cover the evident weakness of his position, O'Reilly resorted to the time-tested spewing of such ugly invective as "despicable," "traitor" and "disloyal" (not at me, but at those who might hold the hypothetical view he was determined to excoriate).
His purpose, of course, was to inflame his audience, without regard to the most fundamental values of the American system he claims to support.
What is the consequence of such demagoguery? As always in our history, it is to foster rage rather than reflection. After the show, I received a flood of e-mails capturing the anger I believe O'Reilly deliberately incited. A few examples:
- "You ought to be arrested, tried and convicted of wartime treason. And I don't have to tell you the penalty for that."
- "You are not only despicable, but should go ahead and move out of the U.S.A."
- "I must imagine that you will look over your shoulder a little bit, because maybe some soldier in a foxhole somewhere might be a tad angered with you. There may be a few GIs who would like to `speak' with you."
- "There is the tendency for citizens to take the law into their own hands in these cases; that is not outside the realm of possibility."
- "If anything happens to either of my loved ones serving overseas, I will hold you responsible."
- "Simply, you are un-American."
And so on.
Of course, these individuals have every right to their views, and the 1st Amendment certainly protects O'Reilly's vile incitement of such hatred.
But he dishonors the Constitution and his profession when he does so. This is not democratic deliberation. It is dividing Americans against Americans just for the sport of it. In my book, for people like political commentators O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh to exploit people's fears and anger in a time of war for nothing more than their own ratings is a pretty good definition of "unpatriotic."
Geoffrey R. Stone, author of Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime, is a law professor at the University of Chicago.
Note: Professor Stone appeared on The O'Reilly Factor on Friday, December 17, 2004. Although a transcript is not currently available on line, Mr. O'Reilly's talking points may be found on his website here.
Copyright 2004 Chicago Tribune Company