Published on Monday, October 1, 2001 in the San Jose Mercury News
No, Dissenters Are As American As Can Be
IT'S begun. The line is being drawn. You're with us or you're against us.
It's not rogue states we're isolating, however. It's each other. The line is being drawn by Americans eager for military action. They place on the other side those who question the wisdom or effectiveness of a military response to terrorism, or who worry about abridging freedoms in the name of security.
It's one thing to label ideas wrongheaded or foolish. That's fine. That's fair debate.
It's another to accuse people with different viewpoints of being un-American. That's the unsettling trend we're beginning to see.
The first blast of intolerance hit Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee. The only lawmaker to vote against President Bush's mandate to use ``all necessary and appropriate force'' against terrorists, Lee was branded unpatriotic and worse by people who believe this country must move in lockstep at times like these.
Closer to home, we see the pattern played out in letters to the editor. Writers who urge less militant responses find themselves vilified as unpatriotic. One of our editorials was labeled treason because it suggested the United States needs to build relationships with Arab nations to fight terrorism. Columnists who try to explain why the United States is hated in parts of the Arab world -- surely useful information -- are accused of making excuses for the terrorists.
Then there's White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who last week criticized a remark by television host Bill Maher. Fleischer said Americans ``need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.''
Of course some pacifist ideas are unrealistic, in our view. Suggesting we negotiate with terrorists, for instance: It would set a terrible precedent.
But it's not unreasonable, let alone un-American, to observe that bombing the daylights out of Afghanistan or Iraq might inspire whole new generations of terrorists. Nor is it unreasonable to caution that if this new war on terror isn't crafted carefully, it might well turn into another Vietnam -- another hopeless fight in hostile territory with no good outcome possible.
Vietnam holds another lesson. War protesters were vilified in the 1960s. Remember ``America -- love it or leave it''? But eventually, a majority of Americans came to agree that the Vietnam war had been ill-conceived.
As we move to defend America against terrorism, it's helpful to keep in mind the reasons it's worth defending. The right to free speech should be high on the list. People who dare to go against the mainstream and speak their minds are not un-American. They're as American as they can be.
© 2001 The Mercury News