Freely in a Time of War
April 22, 2003
By Barry Mauer
"I think this war is an attempt by President Bush to concentrate
his hold on power," said Barry Mauer, 37, an English Professor
at the University of Central Florida. "This [war] is clearly
a power grab." Orlando Sentinel, March 23
The following is a personal letter I received in response
to the quotation that appeared in the Orlando Sentinel:
My father was a WWII Navy veteran. He served
on an aircraft carrier (USS Enterprise CV6). He passed away
2 years ago, but NEVER forgot what he fought for over 50
years before. I was lucky enough to turn 18 during a peaceful
time, and as the draft (and registration) were done away
with. But I have NEVER forgotten what these brave soldiers
sacrificed in order for me to live free. I played taps for
Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies. I played taps
at Veterans' funerals. This was just a tiny payback to them
for all they did for ALL OF US. At my father's funeral,
I watched these feeble but proud WWII Veterans fold the
American flag that they presented my mother. You are a disgrace
to the memory of my father and all those who preceded him
in death so that you would have the freedom to speak your
Your assertion that "this war is clearly a power grab" shows
your lack of rational thinking. Liberals are controlled
only by emotions. Logic never comes into play. Facts only
get in the way. You hide behind the veil of academic freedom.
You have every right to speak your mind, but words have
consequences. That is why I exercise my right to accuse
you of being anti-American.
God Bless President Bush
God Bless America!!
The letter above is in many ways typical of the anti-free
speech arguments heard these days. In the essay that follows,
I will address some of the logos (logic) behind these
arguments. My goal is to expose their hidden premises, the
parts that are implicit but left unspoken. By exposing these
hidden premises, I will demonstrate that the anti-free speech
arguments used against critics of the war are not sound. Unfortunately
I don't have the space to address the pathos (attempts
to elicit emotion) and ethos (attempts to establish
the writer's character) in these arguments.
We have heard the argument that U.S. soldiers in Iraq are
defending our right to free speech. There are implicit arguments
in this line of reasoning that go something like this:
Major premise (hidden): Only soldiers can defend the rights
of all to free speech.
Minor premise: You (or I) are not a soldier.
Conclusion: Neither you nor I can defend the rights of all
to free speech.
Analysis: In this argument, the major premise is clearly
false. Only if soldiers in all cases defended others' freedom
of speech would it be true. Since you or I could defend a
co-worker's freedom of speech by creating a forum for her
to express her views, we must conclude that the argument above
is not sound.
Major premise (partially hidden): Since U.S. soldiers defend
our right to free speech, anything that weakens the effectiveness
of soldiers undermines our free speech.
Minor premise: Criticism of the military or the administration
in control weakens the effectiveness of soldiers.
Conclusion: Critics of the military or the administration
must be isolated, vilified, and intimidated because they undermine
our free speech.
Analysis: The major premise is false because it presumes
that the direct purpose of soldiers' activities is to defend
free speech. In the case of the Iraq war, there is no clear
connection between the actions of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and
the defense of free speech in the U.S. The minor premise is
false because there are many cases in which there is no clear
causal relation between criticism of the military and the
administration and any weakening of military effectiveness.
Some critics may even improve military effectiveness: an example
would be the critics who pointed to the poor quality of U.S.
chemical warfare suits. Both the major and minor premises
are false; hence the argument is not sound. You never hear
anyone state the conclusion to this argument because it is
clearly contradictory; one cannot intimidate critics and claim
to uphold free speech at the same time.
Major premise (hidden): If the U.S. were to be invaded and
occupied by an enemy who didn't believe in free speech, we
would lose our free speech.
Minor premise: We are fighting an enemy who doesn't believe
in free speech.
Conclusion: We must defeat this enemy in order to maintain
our free speech.
Analysis: A true threat to U.S. sovereignty, such as the
Axis powers during World War II, might make this argument
sound. When pro-war advocates used this argument earlier this
year, they implied that the military of Iraq would invade
and occupy the United States and then strip away our freedom
of speech. By stating the implications of this premise so
starkly, we are impressed with its absurdity.
Major premise: Speech that needlessly endangers other people
(like yelling "fire" in a crowded theater) is not protected
Minor premise: Criticism of the war needlessly endangers the
Conclusion: Criticism of the war is not protected speech.
Analysis: In this argument, the minor premise is questionable
at best. If the war itself is needless, then the war itself
certainly endangers the troops needlessly.
If someone yells "fire" in a crowded theater, he is justified
in doing so if there really is a fire. In fact, even if he
thinks there's a fire he is justified because of the precautionary
principle, which indicates that it is less risky to yell "fire"
and be wrong than it is not to yell "fire" and be right. For
example, if you smell smoke in a crowded theater, you are
justified in yelling "fire." It is unjustified and malicious
to yell "fire" in a crowded theater if you have no evidence
that there is a fire.
Let's test this argument in relation to the Iraq war. George
Tenet, head of the CIA, has said that the Iraq war is a threat
to Americans; he testified that instead of reducing the threat
of terrorism, the Iraq war would increase the threat of terrorism.
Tenet's warning is similar to that of the person who smells
smoke and yells "fire" in a crowded theater. Tenet has evidence
- the "smoke" - that Al-Qaeda is using the Iraq war as a recruiting
tool. He is within his rights to warn others about the threat
of "fire" - impending terrorist attacks as a result of the
In contrast to Tenet, George W. Bush is like the person without
evidence of a fire yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. For
example, Bush said that Iraq was an imminent threat to the
United States because the Iraqi regime was acquiring enriched
uranium, a key component in the development of nuclear weapons.
The "evidence" for this claim was a forged document. In other
instances, both Bush and Colin Powell have stated that the
Iraqi regime was allied with Al-Qaeda, a claim that not even
American intelligence officials support.
Falsifying and exaggerating threats in order to take a country
into war qualifies as an unjustified use of speech, analogous
to yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. The Iraq war endangers
U.S. troops, Iraqi citizens, and American citizens, who now
face greater risk of terrorist reprisals as a result of the
Those who control the channels of discourse - the newspapers,
television, radio, and public events - behave contrary to
the principles of free speech when they disallow legitimate
criticism of the Bush administration. Furthermore, by permitting
malicious and dangerous instances of speech to pass through
their discourse channels without analysis or rebuttal, those
who control the media endanger us all.
Free speech isn't really free. It's not an abstract thing.
It occurs within a historical material context when people
exercise it. To have free speech, a person has to struggle
to gain access to the channels of discourse. To have free
speech, a person has to establish an identity as one who speaks.
Speech is both a function of power and a form of power. Think
about any situation in which you have been under the power
of someone else: your parents, your boss, or a superior officer.
The person with power has free speech, right? In these contexts,
you have to struggle for the right to speech. It's not fair,
but it is the way things work.
Free speech is won when people assert their right to it and
maintain that right. Others can defend your free speech, but
they can do so only if you first assert it.
So who is entitled to free speech? Is it only the province
of those in power? No. Free speech is acquired by those who
struggle for it.
Barry Mauer is an assistant professor of English at the
University of Central Florida, Orlando.