Published on Saturday, November 17, 2001 in the St Paul Pioneer Press
America Must Protect Right to Dissent, Even About War
by Fran Sepler
I confess, here, publicly for all to see, that I have a peace sign decal on my car's bumper. I have long labored under the illusion that peace, tranquility and harmony are good things.
Of late, this has not always been such a welcome point of view in the Twin Cities. Last week, while I waited at a stoplight, a man stepped out of the car behind me, rapped on my window and, when I rolled it down, told me firmly that his son was in the Middle East fighting for our country and didn't I think it was time to take that peace sign off my car?
In a rare state of speechlessness, I moved my mouth until finally words came out. "I'm sorry," I said. "We are at war, young lady," said the fellow (probably five years my senior...why do they do that?), "you had better change your way of thinking."
It is hard to think of ourselves as a nation at war. There is no climate of self-sacrifice. The flags on the overpasses are faded and beginning to tatter. Food is plentiful and even the horrors of anthrax seem, somehow, a domestic nightmare and not the stuff of grave international upheaval.
With our "war" being at best an application of our intellect and imagination with a touch of heart thrown in to the mix, a dangerous dynamic is afoot. It appears we are headed toward, if not mired in, a dialectic of "for it" or "against it."
Days after the first strikes in Afghanistan, I visited with a trusted client of mine. He inquired about my well-being and I responded that I was worried, that I did not like being at war. He became immediately and visibly angry, and told me that I perhaps needed to take a trip to Ground Zero before making statements like this.
I backpedaled furiously, recognizing my rhetorical mistake. The damage was done, however. The more I tried to clarify that a dislike of war was not a lack of patriotism nor even a refusal to support necessary force, the more un-American I became.
By trying to define everyone as a patriot or scoundrel, we overlook the rich moral, ethical, philosophical and global debate that creates defining criterion for what is truly a "just war." Even more significantly, by creating a bipolar morality, we lose important public and personal clarity about the type, intensity, appropriate target and resource use and the limits, control and accountabilities that would keep this particular war a "just war."
Instead, we are polled about how safe the government is making us feel and how much we trust them to protect us.
Paternalism and blind trust are anathema to a government of and by the people. Those of us who believe in the primacy of attempting to avoid unnecessary death and destruction, human pain and violence for the most part know that war is not always impossible or immoral, but want to hold our leaders and one another to the highest standards; for when they issue the order to kill, they do so on our behalf.
Attacks by extremist fanatics are said to be about a desire to eliminate our freedoms. I live in America by choice, because it is a place of dissent and discussion, diversity of politics, religion and worldview, and all have their place. We should all fear that in the name of loving the very country that provides us with this incredible and unique freedom, that "patriotism" be equated with blind obedience.
To my way of thinking, it is the right of dissent that makes this country, even for us "peaceniks," worth fighting to defend. To Question Authority (the bumper sticker I used to have) is not the same as disrespecting authority. Quite the contrary. Dissent, contrarian challenges, respect for an abundance of perspectives and a belief that continually assessing and reassessing when peace is worth sacrificing are signs that the work of democracy is being done. We will stand together when it counts.
When I look at my rear view mirror and I see you looking at the decal on my bumper, I will be thankful for the right I have to display it. I hope that if my decal sets off some feelings in you, that you will be grateful for your right to disagree and debate.
God bless America, and peace on Earth.
Sepler (e-mail: email@example.com) of Mendota Heights is one of nine Pioneer Press Community Columnists for 2001. She is a trainer-consultant dealing predominantly with work place issues.
© 2001 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press