NEW YORK --Years ago, a student of mine at UC Santa Cruz drove a Volkswagen van with a QUESTION AUTHORITY bumper sticker. One day, somebody scratched out the message. Lately, at a time when some people think loyalty must be demonstrated with a shut mouth, I've been thinking of my former student and her anonymous vandal.
Whoever felt the need to crush that young woman's audacity was stomping on democratic ideals, failing to understand that questioning is precisely what authority needs. In a democracy, authority needs to convince those it governs. To be convincing, it must be willing and able to defend itself, even--especially--when pointed questions are asked. In his essay "On Liberty," John Stuart Mill wrote that even if one and only one person dissented, the dissent should be heard. First, because the dissenter might just be right. Second, because the authority of the majority opinion--even if close to unanimous--can only be bolstered by having to confront its adversaries. Amid free discussion, arguments only improve. So the expression of rival views is necessary for practical as well as principled reasons. But during the current emergency, a stampede of unthinking censure is muffling the debate we need to have in order to fight the smartest possible campaign against our enemies. Ari Fleischer, the president's press secretary, scolded that Americans should "watch what they say." He was not referring to advance notice of troop movements, which of course no one ought to blurt out. He was referring to a tossed-off remark by talk show host Bill Maher. And Fleischer is not alone in blindly discarding the democratic faith in free discussion. In the Wall Street Journal last week, Gregg Easterbrook wrote that, since novelists Barbara Kingsolver and Arundhati Roy have written harshly about the American flag and America's approach to the world, "bookstores may fairly respond by declining to stock their books." Stocking their books, he suggests, amounts to "promoting" their views.
As it happens, I have written passionately against Roy's views in recent weeks, and I vigorously disagree with Kingsolver about the flag. What does their wrong-headedness have to do with their right to be read? As it happens, Easterbrook himself wrote recently in The New Republic that American motorists contribute handsomely via oil imports to the Saudi Arabian money gusher that has subsidized Al Qaeda. Should gas-guzzling patrons of Barnes & Noble be catered to if they demand that his book be unshelved?
A call for the shuttering of minds betrays the opposite of confidence in the American campaign against murderous terrorists. What it betrays is desperation, feebleness of nerve, a pathetic lack of confidence that questions can be answered. If our authorities are already unthinkingly, kneejerkingly disbelieved by too many people around the world, why does it help to ask fewer questions? The quandaries we confront now--and for the foreseeable future--are immensely difficult, surely making the asking of questions a citizen's duty.
Yet, since Sept. 11 and the decision to go to war in Afghanistan, public officials are taking easy ways out, resorting to platitudes. Democrats and Republicans alike are fearful of vigorous public debate. Faced with a colossal failure of intelligence before Sept. 11, such blank-check confidence in the institutions of national defense is demonstrably foolhardy. Much of the press, particularly television, had deluded itself in recent years that America could afford to ignore international events. Now they are playing catch-up, but timidly. Reporters ask technical military questions that officials properly dance away from, but they shy away from bigger, more important political questions.
Now the national self-defense campaign has turned into a war. And war, like it or not, mangles the truth, because propaganda is useful to all parties. The Pentagon can't be expected to change its ways. All the more reason, then, for journalists on other beats to give ample attention to the immense questions before us. One need not make the mistake of thinking that Afghanistan is Vietnam to note that policy unquestioned is policy unbridled.
Our questions need to start with one so basic and difficult it needs to be reflected upon calmly, again and again. How is America to live in a world where hundreds of millions of ignorant people, some of whom aim to possess weapons of mass destruction, hate us? From that question will come dozens of others, including:
* What ought to be American policy toward the fundamentalist Islamic regime of Saudi Arabia, which nurtured Bin Laden, the Taliban and the fanatical madrassas of Pakistan? If it is time to stop America's long embrace of the House of Saud, then what? If our need to embrace the Saudi regime in part stems from our dependence on oil, then how can we reduce it?
* What is the danger of famine this winter in Afghanistan? What is the U.N. saying? (Warnings and appeals by Oxfam, the Red Cross and other relief groups have barely registered on the American radar screen.) Who is to be trusted about casualties, famine and other desperate conditions there? The Taliban is trying to manage the news--big surprise. But casualty reports, true or false, are flying around the rest of the world. What is the rest of the world saying? Why are American editors not sifting through these reports, evaluating them as best they can and pulling out the most reliable for Americans?
* Are sanctions against Iraq useful? Are they having the desired effect? How else might we restrain Saddam Hussein's weapons programs and assaults on his own people?
The sad truth is that, when deciding what constitutes legitimate controversy, the media take their cues from the two major parties. When the parties agree to keep a question out of play, the news media usually acquiesce, as with the elimination of debate on the president's missile defense system in the wake of Sept. 11. In those days, with huge questions unasked and unanswered, we saw an unseemly haste on both right and left to stake out firm positions on a war without clear aims.
In the meantime, those who oppose the current war also evade tough questions. If they oppose the bombing, how do they propose that the nation defend itself? By parachuting subpoenas over Afghan caves? Nothing could be emptier than to say "Bring Bin Laden to justice" when there is no international constabulary, no international army, no international criminal justice system. Today and tomorrow, in the only world we have, how is the government to protect Americans from committed murderers who unrepentantly say they want to kill Americans anywhere and have demonstrated their ability to do so? No American government could deserve respect from its own citizens without a plausible strategy in the here-and-now.
Barry Farber, a long-time conservative radio host in New York, had it right. He used to close his show with the words, "Keep asking questions." That was patriotism, not panic.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times