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Limits of Dissent in Times of War and Crisis?

October 16, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Democratic Congressman James McDermott of Washington broke ranks last week and became only the second House member to speak out against the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan. “The destruction of the infrastructure did not work in Iraq a decade ago. It’s deja vu. This sounds an awful lot like Iraq. Saddam Hussein is still in power. I’m not so sure that President Bush, members of his administration or the military have thought this action out completely or fully examined America’s cause.”

TERENCE SMITH: Earlier Representative Barbara Lee of California was the only lawmaker to vote against the bill authorizing the use of force.

REP. BARBARA LEE: Yet I’m convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States. However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint.

TERENCE SMITH: In response, the congresswoman received angry mail and even death threats. Across America, the issue of free speech versus appropriate speech has been tested repeatedly recently: In the entertainment industry, the media, the literacy community, and on college campuses.

ANNOUNCER: The star of Politically Incorrect, Bill Maher.

TERENCE SMITH: The irreverent Bill Maher, host of Politically Incorrect learned the limits of dissent when he made this comment less than a week after the September 11 attacks.

BILL MAHER: We have been the cowards, lobbing Cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, not cowardly.

TERENCE SMITH: Maher’s comments ignited a firestorm. And some local stations dropped or suspended his show. At the White House, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer issued a cautionary note.

ARI FLEISCHER: There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that. There never is.

TERENCE SMITH: In Grants Pass, Oregon, the Daily Courier fired a columnist who assailed President Bush for not returning to Washington immediately after the attacks. In Galveston County, Texas, the Texas City Sun apologized for a column by its city editor head lines “Bush Failed to Lead the U.S. ” The editor was let go.

And at the University of Texas in Austin, the college president and a journalism professor traded bashes in the media over a dissenting opinion piece written by the professor. And on the campus of the University of New Mexico, Professor Richard Berthold told his history class “anyone who can blow up the Pentagon has my vote.” He has since apologized.

At The Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory critiqued the president’s performance immediately after the attacks. “George W. Bush could not find the beat. He jarringly referred to the terrorists as ‘folks’ in his first public comments, during which he looked more apprehensive than resolute. He allowed himself to be hauled about the country like a fugitive to bunkers at air bases in Louisiana and Nebraska.” McGrory said she received angrier mails from readers for that column than any in her 40-year career.

And writer Susan Sontag caused a stir when she wrote in the New Yorker… “We have a robotic president who assures us that America still stands tall…The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.”

TERENCE SMITH: Joining us to weigh in on the dissent debate are Representative James McDermott of Washington State; James Goldsmith, commander – Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States; Wendy Kaminer, a senior correspondent for the American Prospect Magazine; and Bill Bennett, co-director of Empower America. Welcome to you all.

Bill Bennett, we’ve just cited several examples of dissent from Susan Sontag to Bill Maher. Are their comments appropriate at a time like this?

BILL BENNETT: Well, First Amendment appropriate, sure. The First Amendment certainly allows people to say things like that. Whether they are called for by the occasion is another question, and I find Susan Sontag’s comments contemptible but not surprising; she’s been saying contemptible things all her professional life. Mr. Maher, whatever his name is -


BILL BENNETT: — made an ass of himself, improved his ratings, and such happens in the United States of America. You can say things under your First Amendment rights, like Sontag and Maher do, and this can make you more popular. You can sell more books. You can have a larger following. It does, however, mean that people may come along and decide to criticize you, but it seems to me in these days since September 11, some things are healthy; some things are not. The First Amendment seems to be pretty healthy.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. Wendy Kaminer, you’ve written columns critical of President Bush since September 11. Did you have any hesitation or second thoughts as you did so?

WENDY KAMINER: Absolutely not. I think it’s my job as a citizen to say what I think, as long as I say it peacefully in the course of a civil debate. I did not think that Sontag’s remarks or Bill Maher’s remarks were contemptible. I thought they were – I thought Sontag especially was making some fairly mild observations.

They were certainly representing a dissenting point of view, but, again, they were civil; they offered a perspective; and I think that there is no more appropriate time than a time of national crisis, than a time when we are entering a very complicated and dangerous war to hear diverse opinions on whether or not the Administration’s actions are going to make this a safer or a more dangerous world, whether or not we really can trust the president. I’m always troubled when I see too much faith in government because – and too much faith in the president – because just as government can’t function when people don’t trust it at all, freedom doesn’t survive very well when people trust it too much.

TERENCE SMITH: James Goldsmith, you put out a statement in which you said that “Dissenters dishonor the resolve of our nation and disgrace the memory of those who died on September 11.”


TERENCE SMITH: What’s the problem with dissent from your point of view?

JAMES GOLDSMITH: Mr. Maher and our organization fought for that First Amendment right and we won’t take that First Amendment right away. But also I think I ought to represent the 2.7 million people that I represent and their views are that the protesters are unproductive; it’s distracting; it does not honor those that were still on the site looking for remains and shifting through dust and cement, and the firemen and the policemen that lost their lives there. It’s just not – it’s not the right thing to do.

TERENCE SMITH: So is it a matter of timing?

JAMES GOLDSMITH: Certainly it’s a matter of timing, and look at C-Span when they cover protests on there, and I remember going back when President Bush was inaugurated on a cold, blustery November day sitting on the White House lawn, but there was 500 protesters, and you look at the coverage they have, yes, the timing is completely wrong.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. Congressman McDermott, we had your statement in the setup. What sort of reaction did you get to that from constituents and maybe your colleagues?

REP. JAMES McDERMOTT: Well, in my office we got more than 600 phone calls. 80 percent of them were in support. We had 300 phone calls from out of the district, and there were about two-thirds of those were in support. So I had a lot of support, but I’ve also met people who absolutely disagree with me. And I don’t think we disagree very much. We all are enraged by what happened at the Twin Towers.

The question is: What is the best way for us to respond? And I think that a democracy requires that you listen to all sides in making your decision. John Kennedy got into trouble in the Bay of Pigs because he didn’t listen widely enough. When it came to the Cuban Missile Crisis, he told Bobby, “Go out and find everybody on every side of this issue, and I want to hear.” And he did a good job of dealing with it. I think that dissent is necessary in a democracy. If you have a dictatorship, you don’t need dissent.

TERENCE SMITH: Bill Bennett, was the Congressman wrong to stand up and say what he thinks about…

BILL BENNETT: No, no, I think he’s wrong what he said, but he’s certainly not wrong to stand up in what he thinks. In some ways, I don’t think there’s much of an issue here. There’s a dissent. Jim McDermott speaks out all the time. I agree with him 20% to 30% of the time. It doesn’t matter to him, and it doesn’t matter to me. But dissent is really pretty healthy in the public debate in the U.S.

The thing I want to point out about your opening piece is all of this is about sort of chills from the right. If there were repressive institutions in this country where free speech really isn’t honored, it’s not I think in the halls of Congress or in the media, it’s at many of our elite institutions, our educational institutions.

You want to talk about a chilling effect, go to Harvard, go to Williams at the present time, go to some of the university teach-ins, and you will see a real chilling effect for the First Amendment. I would hope our champions of the First Amendment will get up and inspect those places to be sure that the First Amendment rights of people who disagree with faculty sentiment are protected and respected.

TERENCE SMITH: Wendy Kaminer, is there a chill?

WENDY KAMINER: This is one of those rare moments when Bill Bennett and I agree completely. I think that college campuses for the last ten or fifteen years have been hotbeds of repression. We know all about their speech codes and their political correctness, and there is a lot of right wing speech that is silenced on campus by people on the left. But what I see or what I fear will happen now is that we will have a kind of political correctness off campus when it comes to criticism of the president or the war effort. You know, intolerance of dissent is a bipartisan failing.

JAMES GOLDSMITH: If I may, Bill, this is a time for this country to heal. We’re not healed. We’re a long ways from healing on this. And myself and my organization, we support the efforts of the president, but we also support the efforts of both Houses of Congress, and I think this is where the balancing act is.

I don’t think the Congress and the Senate are a bunch of people that don’t know what they’re doing. I would think that they have the intelligence to make the proper decisions. And I say to the people that want to dissent and the people that want to protest, what is your answer to the situation and how much more can we take?

WENDY KAMINER: You know, I have to respond to that briefly because if you look at what Congress is doing right now, Congress, when it comes to the counter terrorism bill that has been drafted by the Administration, is acting like an auxiliary of the executive branch. They are passing laws that they haven’t even read, so I don’t think it’s quite fair to say that they know what they’re doing.

They don’t know what’s in the laws that they’re passing. The ACLU office in Washington has had phone calls from Senate staffers after they vote on a bill saying, “tell us what we just voted on.” Congress is abdicating its responsibility to question and criticize the administration’s action. If the people don’t do it, no one will.

TERENCE SMITH: Congressman, what do you say about that?

REP. JAMES McDERMOTT: I think that is really what the problem is. Everybody wants to do something right now, and it is very hard as Americans to sit still and plan carefully. This whole operation was planned over a three- or four-year period. I’ve traveled in India and Pakistan, been to the refugee camps of the Afghans. I’ve seen all of it, and I just think that we have to be very careful.

The lion gets the most prey, not the bull in the china shop that just charges in. And I think that the longer we wait and the longer we plan, the more likely we are to have success and be able to hold a very fragile coalition together. To say that is not to say I don’t support the troops or something being done for the 5,000 orphans created by that — that doesn’t change my feeling about that, but it’s that I don’t want any more of that to happen, and I want to find the best way to do it. That’s not bad for the process.

TERENCE SMITH: And yet you voted, Congressman, did you not, to authorize the president to use force.

REP. JAMES McDERMOTT: Yes, I did. And I felt that he was going to have to use force at some time. I just wanted him to wait a little bit longer while they let the Taliban implode when they cut off the money. There’s a way to do that.

TERENCE SMITH: Any argument with that?

BILL BENNETT: No. Well, maybe an argument about tactics or military strategy, but no argument of principle. In fact the irony here is that I would support Congressman McDermott on a number of his votes, and I’ve been angry at some of my conservative colleagues who are teaming up with some on the left to block some of these legislative actions, which I think are very sensible and are relatively mild. So Jim Goldsmith will forgive me for criticizing the government. Congress is part of the government, and I’m going to criticize some of my guys who I think are holding up progress. I will do my part.

TERENCE SMITH: Holding up progress in what sense?

BILL BENNETT: In terms of getting the bills through that the Attorney General and the president want.

TERENCE SMITH: Wendy Kaminer says they’re rubberstamping them.

BILL BENNETT: I don’t think they are. There’s obviously been resistance. There have been articles about it. She may think that they’re going through too fast. I think some of them deserve more debate.

WENDY KAMINER: But the bills that were debated and negotiated were put aside when the Administration came into Congress, and at 3:00 on Friday morning they wrote a new bill, and it was passed without a lot of people even reading it. If that’s not…

TERENCE SMITH: You’re nodding your head. This is true?

BILL BENNETT: Well, there’s a precedent for Congressmen not reading bills and passing. You wouldn’t say that’s extraordinary.

WENDY KAMINER: But I also wouldn’t say it’s a good thing.

BILL BENNETT: No, it’s not a good thing. I agree with that.

REP. JAMES McDERMOTT: This was a process on the terrorism bill where both sides worked together, and they had a bill that was agreed upon. Barney Frank and Jim Sensenbrenner couldn’t be politically any further apart, and they agree. And I was about to vote for it; then it went to the Rules Committee. They threw it in the wastebasket and came back the next day with something totally different, and I voted no. And I think that that’s… You have to work together on both sides.

BILL BENNETT: Of course.

TERENCE SMITH: Let me bring it back to this period and this issue of dissent and voice and expression. For example, now, Wendy Kaminer, we see the flag everywhere– on automobiles, on display everywhere. I wonder what you think about that, and whether you feel that it tends to put people in categories of patriotic and unpatriotic, or what you think?

WENDY KAMINER: I would like to see the dissenters and the protesters marching under an American flag because I think that they’re holding up some very important fundamental American ideals. It’s very hard to know what people are saying when they hang out an American flag. Maybe they’re just expressing a sense of community or solidarity or sorrow for the people who have been killed.

I don’t take the hanging out of an American flag as an act of jingoism necessarily. Now some people do, and the reason they do is that historically the flag is sometimes used to silence people who disagree with the prevailing opinion. I think that’s unfortunate, and I think that the way to encourage that is for people on the left and for people who dissent is to shy away from flag-waving; I think they should all be out there flag-waving.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you think it’s being used that way now?

WENDY KAMINER: That’s hard to say. I would hesitate to say that. I suspect that the use of the flag now by people across the country represents a pretty broad range of views, and it’s partly… Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I think it is partly an expression of sorrow and solidarity.

TERENCE SMITH: Other views on that?

BILL BENNETT: Well, this tells you where we are. First of all, I haven’t been called a flag-waver in five weeks. I was called a flag-waving conservative for years before September 11. But it tells you the paths, which we have come when you ask a question, “Are you offended by people flying a flag?”

This is our flag. I mean, Wendy Kaminer’s answer is right. She is not offended by it. She would recommend people who disagree to unfurl the flag as well. But I mean, we have 5,000 people killed in a slaughter, and somebody’s sensibilities are offended because somebody is flying a flag? Excuse me. I mean, I think those sensibilities are just going to have to yield a little bit because that’s not violating anybody’s rights.

TERENCE SMITH: James Goldsmith?

REP. JAMES McDERMOTT: I agree with him, too.


REP. JAMES McDERMOTT: Yeah, if 5,000 people are killed in a heinous act like that, for the American people to want to come together under the flag and deal with that, that makes the most sense you could possibly… That’s what the nation is about.

TERENCE SMITH: That’s unity, you would argue.


TERENCE SMITH: James Goldsmith, you’ve been talking I know to members of the armed forces. You travel around and visit them. Has this issue of dissent and criticism of the policies come up at all?

JAMES GOLDSMITH: Yes. I was down in Camp Lejeune last week. I was down there for a couple of days. I talked to many of the military and especially the enlisted personnel. They don’t like it. I mean, they don’t like it. I don’t disagree with Wendy. You bring up some very legitimate points there about the flag and some of the other comments. But they… What is really obnoxious to them is the demonstrations. I think they can handle the editorializing of what we should do or what we shouldn’t do. But the demonstrations, they just don’t care for that.

TERENCE SMITH: Do they have a point, the demonstrators?

WENDY KAMINER: You know, I’m not going to say whether or not they have a point. I can understand why it’s difficult for them to see when they’re about to go off to war. What I would want to say to them is obviously this is one of the rights that you’re going to be fighting to defend, and how else are ordinary people going to get their message heard if they don’t get together in large groups and march on a public square, because they don’t own newspapers, they can’t write editorials.

JAMES GOLDSMITH: Well, Wendy sometimes they’re not large groups. I mean C-Span covered it for one day. From what I’ve been able to gather, there wasn’t a thousand people down there. You know…

WENDY KAMINER: Why is that so troublesome? Why is it so troublesome if 40 people or 400 people want to get together and express their opinion?

JAMES GOLDSMITH: Because the minority will be heard, but the majority rules in this country. How much publicity am I going to get when we have a liberty… A patriotic rally on Liberty Island on October 27?

TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask Congressman McDermott, are you going to have any company in Congress? I mean, do you feel any kindred spirits there in terms of standing up and expressing dissent as to the policy?

REP. JAMES McDERMOTT: Well, certainly Barbara Lee already has, but there are others who are troubled by the whole issue. But none of us felt that we could vote against giving the president the right to act, because an event that occurred, you can’t walk away from what happened to 5,000 people.

But when it gets down to what you’re going to actually do, I was a psychiatrist in Vietnam and dealt with casualties coming back. And I saw these kids who were sent to a war that people didn’t really believe in or didn’t support. And I want to be very careful about what kid I send over to one of these places.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, we’ll leave it on that note. Thank you all four very much.