Courage in Journalism: Chris Satullo on the Fourth of July

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Courage in Journalism: Chris Satullo on the Fourth of July

by
Gordon Bennet

There are several Halls of Fame for journalists. But I don't know if there is a Hall of Fame for Remarkably Courageous Prophetic Journalists.

If there is one, Chris Satullo should be voted in.

Born in Cleveland in 1953, Satullo quickly rose to the top of his profession. Ultimately he became the Editorial Page Editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer. For me, the highlight of his career was the courageous column he wrote for the Fourth of July, 2008.

Courageous journalists? We usually think of war correspondents, from Ernie Pyle to Chris Hedges, men and women who file their columns from battlefronts; unarmed, they bravely venture into conflict zones to keep us informed.

Such people are lauded for their remarkable courage, and rightly so. Often they are lionized and warmly admired.

But Chris Satullo is a different kind of hero with a very special courage. He wasn't lionized for that incendiary column. He was lauded by a few but ridiculed, castigated, and condemned by many.

Satullo's column offended people, especially zealous self-styled patriots who were convinced that America couldn't do anything wrong in its "war on terror."

Satullo thought otherwise. His controversial column was titled "A Not So Glorious Fourth: U.S. Atrocities are Unworthy of our Heritage."

"Put the fireworks in storage," he wrote. "Cancel the parades. Tuck the soaring speeches in a drawer for another time. This year America doesn't deserve to celebrate its birthday. This Fourth of July should be a day of quiet and atonement.

"For we have sinned.

"We have failed to pay attention. We've settled for lame excuses. We've spit on the memory of those who did that big brave thing in Philadelphia 232 years ago.

"The America those men founded should never torture a prisoner.

"The America they founded should never imprison people for years without charge or hearing. The America they founded should never ship prisoners to foreign lands, knowing their new jailers might torture them."

Passionately Satullo argued that America had shamed the values and vision of the founding fathers. We didn't deserve to celebrate Independence Day. Instead, we should have spent it in quiet penitence and contrition.

In earlier times, such as the fifties when I came of age, it would have been bizarre to find someone defending human rights against other Americans who espoused torture.

Why? Because it never entered our minds that Americans would engage in such cruel and repulsive behavior. In those days we never dreamed that day would come. Even Joe McCarthy didn't use physical torture.

That day did come. A few others spoke out, but only Chris Satullo dared to suggest that our favorite national holiday be turned into a day for mourning lost values.

He knew this would not win him fans among the Rush Limbaugh crowd. Indeed, Rush led the charge and within days the mail was running 3-1 against Satullo's position. He was called a traitor, an American-hater, and worse. "Unpatriotic" was perhaps the kindest thing said by those who chose the route of vilification rather than rational rebuttal.

Satullo then followed with a second column, "No Time to Surrender Our American Values."

Heroic journalism? Absolutely. Prophetic, in the Old Testament sense? You bet your Jeremiahs!

I'm not calling Satullo a saint. He probably kicks the cat or tells a white lie now and then, and when it comes to foreign policy he believes that military force may sometimes be necessary. He's no Gandhi.

But in today's America, when half the population believes that anything goes if and when we're told it's a matter of "national security," this principled man told us clearly that we're sliding down the slippery slope into a moral abyss.

"And all for a scam," Satullo wrote. "The waterboarding, the snarling dogs, the theft of sleep-all the diabolical tricks haven't made us safer. They may have averted this plot or that. But they've spawned new enemies by the thousands, made the jihadist rants ring true to so many ears."

As July 4, 2009, approaches with Dick Cheney proudly defending the Bush torture policy, we should reconsider Satullo's brave call to repentance. Maybe the typical reader never tortured anyone. But we re-elected the Bush/Cheney gang in 2004, knowing that "harsh interrogation" tactics, rendition, and secret CIA prisons were being used to hold people forever, incommunicado. No lawyers, courts, or due process.

Are we not therefore collectively responsible?

Ethicists and wise teachers have told us that the use of immoral or unjust means will produce like ends.

Chris Satullo knows that. Deep inside, most of us know that. George Bush didn't. Dick Cheney never will.

Hmm... a day of national contrition. Atonement.

What are your plans for the Fourth of July, 2009?

Gordon Bennet can be reached at orcagb@aol.com

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