"The President...knows not where he is. He is a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man. God grant he may be able to show there is not something about his conscience more painful than all his mental perplexity."
The quotation above comes from a speech young Abe Lincoln, a Whig party representative from Illinois, made on the floor of the US House of Representatives in 1848, during his only term in Congress. Lincoln was speaking in favor of a resolution the Whigs had proposed, that the ongoing Mexican War was "unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States."
In the next presidential election, the Whig candidate won.
There has been dissent in virtually all of America's wars--including, albeit to a lesser degree, World War II. The government and general public have reacted to this dissent in different ways, depending on the circumstances. But wartime dissent has a long and honorable tradition in our nation's history.
So the harsh overreactions in the past month to any discordant notes in the media's "patriotic" harmony--journalists fired or publicly excoriated; a purposely controversial show named "Politically Incorrect" dropped by network affiliates; advertising pulled from "60 Minutes," because Andy Rooney made humorous comments about the president's speech--are disturbing.
It seems too many people, mistaking nationalism for patriotism and mythology for history, have forgotten that the "unity" in America comes from our national motto, "E pluribus unum": out of many, one. I doubt that the Founding Fathers' vision of America's future included all of us mindlessly goose-stepping together into a brave new world order of permanent warfare--which is exactly what the "war on terrorism" could easily become.
The tragedies of September 11, with their symbolic and visual power, had a uniquely devastating effect on the American psyche, perhaps equivalent to the effect of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings on the Japanese. Like tragedies and crises in the lives of individuals, they offer America an opportunity to mature beyond the "perpetual adolescence" to which our national character is so often compared.
But maturity requires a bedrock conservative value: taking responsibility for your actions. And thus far in our national dialogue, the signs of that are not encouraging. Although there has been perfunctory acknowledment of the legitimacy of some grievances concerning Middle East policy, the true causes of this war are still being kept mostly hidden from a shell-shocked American public--to our peril. America's "new war" looks to me a lot like the old, cold one.
The America I love has little to do with either its government or its military--both of which have lied to the public so often in my lifetime that I wouldn't accept a single one of their statements at face value. The America I love rests on the more trustworthy foundation of justice, freedom and respect for human rights.
When my country moves away from that foundation, dissent is my highest patriotic duty.
Michael Hasty is a columnist at West Virginia's oldest newspaper, the Hampshire Review (www.hampshirereview.com, where this column currently appears). He also writes a monthly environmental column for the Highlands Voice, the newsletter of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (www.wvhighlands.org).