March 7, 2003
By Pamela Troy
the war against Saddam Hussein begins, we expect every American
to support our military, and if you can't do that, just shut
up. Americans, and indeed our foreign allies who actively
work against our military once the war is underway, will be
considered enemies of the state by me. Just fair warning to
you, Barbra Streisand and others who see the world as you
do. I don't want to demonize anyone, but anyone who hurts
this country in a time like this, well. Let's just say you
will be spotlighted." - Bill O'Reilly, February 26, 2003
It looks as though we have entered one of those periods of
madness we occasionally have in this country, where little
people who wield more power than they should point fingers
and shriek "traitor!" at those who disagree with them. Even
given the opportunity, there really isn't much point in arguing
with someone who, from his lofty perch on national television,
announces his intention to "spotlight" those "enemies of the
state" who "see the world as Barbra Streisand" does. We aren't
missionaries, and Bill O'Reilly is not a child. Anyone at
his age who doesn't understand how dissent works in a free
country is unlikely to ever understand.
That does not make it any less frightening for those of us
who may find themselves "spotlighted," either smeared as anti-American
(or, as O'Reilly has since amended it, "bad Americans") by
someone with a national audience, or subjected to the kind
of FBI attentions the Church Committee exposed in its investigation
of COINTELPRO. If O'Reilly's vision of an America in which
those who refuse to "shut up" are deemed "enemies of the state"
comes true, a look at modern American history can give us
a general idea of what to expect. Careers will be endangered
by formal or informal blacklists. Activists will find themselves
targeted for government harassment, their private correspondence
read, their phone conversations surreptitiously recorded.
And lately, the ante has been upped considerably. The administration
has made it plain that even massive peaceful protests are
beneath their notice, (not a surprising reaction from a president
who was appointed rather than elected) leaving committed protestors
with little choice but to move on from legal demonstrations
to acts of Civil Disobedience. The PATRIOT Act and the Jose
Padilla case have made being charged with terrorism for donating
to the wrong organization, or simply being whisked off into
some barred limbo without access to a lawyer or a public hearing
a possibility. A remote possibility, but a possibility, nevertheless.
Or perhaps it's not that remote. Two weeks ago, an American
with a history of activism was arrested, handcuffed, and interrogated
for several hours for saying "Bush is out of control" on an
Internet chat-room in a public library in Santa Fe.
I find myself, in my forties, seriously considering the likelihood
of being sent to jail, not because I am contemplating a theft
or an assault, but because my gut response to the demand that
I shut up is "No. I won't."
Most of us would like to think that we'd react to repression
with courage, but that is not something anyone can truly predict
about himself or herself. Can you bear the fear and humiliation
of being handcuffed and handled roughly by a cop wielding
a club? Are you willing to spend a night, or two nights, or
more, in jail? To call your employer from there and explain
why you can't come in to work? What if you face losing your
job? Your career? Your home? What if somebody you love is
threatened if you continue to speak out? What if, Heaven forbid,
you face going to prison, or being interned in some detention
It depends, I suppose, on what frightens you more, the consequences
of honesty, or your own good opinion of yourself. Maybe courage
is simply fearing your own conscience more.
I do know what courage is not. Courage is not forcing people
to choose between honesty and security. It is not fearing
free expression to the point where you wish to see those who
dissent fired, or ruined, or locked up, or otherwise punished
merely because they disagree. It is not shouting, "shut up,
or we'll hurt you."
There is one comfort to offer as we stand on the brink of
yet another era of unreason.
In the past there have been people who have measured patriotism
by a citizen's willingness to walk in lock-step behind those
in power, and who have made it their life's work to harass
and humiliate those who don't. They have almost always imagined
themselves as heroic defenders of their country, but history
rarely agrees with that assessment.
The role these people play in silencing citizens of conscience
is, in retrospect, generally regarded as an embarrassment.
The platitudes they uttered are remembered, not as inspiring
calls to battle, but as the bleating of sheep who imagined
that if they baa'd loudly enough, it would sound like the
roar of a lion.