Democratic Underground  

History and Courage
March 7, 2003
By Pamela Troy

"Once 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 camp?

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.

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