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Mouthing Off

A proud American tradition at risk

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So much for free speech, the distinctly American commodity whose limits have been sorely tried and curtailed in recent months: Anti-war protesters have been summarily dismissed, their patriotism questioned. Academics are looking over their shoulders lest they be accused of voicing anti- or un-American sentiments in their search for truth. Even the first lady, after scheduling a reading at the White House for National Poetry Month, canceled the event for fear that those pesky open-minded poets might express their disagreement with White House policy.

University of Texas professor and leading free speech advocate Robert Jensen reminds us that free speech is literally a matter of life and death in wartime. So this week we offer a smorgasbord of opinions that consider: What is the role of free speech in a vital democracy? What happens when an open exchange of ideas is suppressed?

We offer the ponderings of a 12-year-old girl and the stirring words of dissent offered on the Senate floor last week by 85-year-old U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia. We offer them as an antidote to the roar of CNN and Fox News, as food for thought. Enjoy.

April 27, 2003

The other day I heard a little boy ask his grandmother what the point of war was and she looked down at him and said, "It's sort of like a bunch of grownups on a great big playground and one group has a ball and everyone else wants it. It doesn't really make much sense, does it?"

I agree that war is ridiculous but I didn't agree with her answer. I know that patronizing a 6-year-old doesn't mean much when they're 6, but the vision he'll have will leave him curious and confused for years. I knew that Bush had decided that Saddam Hussein was evil, I mean who hasn't? But I don't agree with killing a bunch of innocent people for one man whom we may never catch, or invading a country before they've done anything to us. Then I heard a certain chant, "No blood for oil! U.S. troops off Iraq soil!" Blood for oil? This war isn't for oil, is it? I would ask question after question getting numerous sarcastic or metaphorical answers, or simply comments about Bush.

Most people think that kids my age should know all that sort of stuff, but if at age 6 we're being told we're killing people for toys, how will we know if no one ever tells us? If I am going to protest against something I want to know all the facts, so when confronted I can state my reasons with confidence. I heard rumors about Bush. Blood for oil. I saw gas prices going up, and a million other little things that made me hesitate.

I finally couldn't take it. I needed answers. If I couldn't get them in one place, I'd go somewhere else. I learned about the PATRIOT Act, which basically states that if for some reason someone believed you were a terrorist, you could be thrown in jail for an indefinite amount of time without a trial -- even though the Constitution states that all have the right to a quick trial. I heard about Bush and Cheney's close attachments to Enron, and the oil industry, meaning (whether they say it or not) it would be quite handy for the Bush and Cheney families to have an entire country to themselves, just packed with oil wells. I learned a lot and feel a lot safer now that I do. I thought the war was nonsensical before, but now I see where the sense is and how sick it is too. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but knowledge is power.

-- Hannah Mask, 12, is a homeschooler in Delaware. Her piece comes from, an online news and commentary service by and for young people.

Senate Floor Remarks -- May 21, 2003

"Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again,

The eternal years of God are hers;

But Error, wounded, writhes in pain,

And dies among his worshippers."

Truth has a way of asserting itself despite all attempts to obscure it. Distortion only serves to derail it for a time. No matter to what lengths we humans may go to obfuscate facts or delude our fellows, truth has a way of squeezing out through the cracks, eventually.

Regarding the situation in Iraq, it appears to this senator that the American people may have been lured into accepting the unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation, in violation of long-standing international law, under false premises. There is ample evidence that the horrific events of September 11 have been carefully manipulated to switch public focus from Osama bin Laden and al Queda who masterminded the September 11th attacks, to Saddam Hussein who did not. The run up to our invasion of Iraq featured the president and members of his cabinet invoking every frightening image they could conjure, from mushroom clouds, to buried caches of germ warfare, to drones poised to deliver germ-laden death in our major cities. We were treated to a heavy dose of overstatement concerning Saddam Hussein's direct threat to our freedoms. The tactic was guaranteed to provoke a sure reaction from a nation still suffering from a combination of post-traumatic stress and justifiable anger after the attacks of 9/11. It was the exploitation of fear. It was a placebo for the anger.

Since the war's end, every subsequent revelation which has seemed to refute the previous dire claims of the Bush administration has been brushed aside. Instead of addressing the contradictory evidence, the White House deftly changes the subject. No weapons of mass destruction have yet turned up, but we are told that they will in time. Perhaps they yet will. But, our costly and destructive bunker busting attack on Iraq seems to have proven, in the main, precisely the opposite of what we were told was the urgent reason to go in. ...

Meanwhile bin Laden is still on the loose and Saddam Hussein has come up missing. ...

What has become painfully clear in the aftermath of war is that Iraq was no immediate threat to the U.S. Ravaged by years of sanctions, Iraq did not even lift an airplane against us. Iraq's threatening death-dealing fleet of unmanned drones about which we heard so much morphed into one prototype made of plywood and string. Their missiles proved to be outdated and of limited range. Their army was quickly overwhelmed by our technology and our well-trained troops.

But the Bush team's extensive hype of WMD in Iraq as justification for a preemptive invasion ... has raised serious questions about prevarication and the reckless use of power. Were our troops needlessly put at risk? Were countless Iraqi civilians killed and maimed when war was not really necessary? Was the American public deliberately misled? Was the world?

What makes me cringe even more is the continued claim that we are "liberators." The facts don't seem to support the label we have so euphemistically attached to ourselves. True, we have unseated a brutal, despicable despot, but "liberation" implies the follow-up of freedom, self-determination and a better life for the common people. In fact, if the situation in Iraq is the result of "liberation," we may have set the cause of freedom back 200 years.

Despite our high-blown claims of a better life for the Iraqi people, water is scarce, and often foul; electricity is a sometime thing; food is in short supply; hospitals are stacked with the wounded and maimed; historic treasures of the region and of the Iraqi people have been looted; and nuclear material may have been disseminated to heaven knows where, while U.S. troops, on orders, looked on and guarded the oil supply.

Meanwhile, lucrative contracts to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure and refurbish its oil industry are awarded to administration cronies, without benefit of competitive bidding, and the U.S. steadfastly resists offers of U.N. assistance to participate. Is there any wonder that the real motives of the U.S. government are the subject of worldwide speculation and mistrust?

And in what may be the most damaging development, the U.S. appears to be pushing off Iraq's clamor for self-government. Jay Garner has been summarily replaced, and it is becoming all too clear that the smiling face of the U.S. as liberator is quickly assuming the scowl of an occupier. The image of the boot on the throat has replaced the beckoning hand of freedom. Chaos and rioting only exacerbate that image, as U.S. soldiers try to sustain order in a land ravaged by poverty and disease. "Regime change" in Iraq has so far meant anarchy, curbed only by an occupying military force and a U.S. administrative presence that is evasive about if and when it intends to depart.

Democracy and Freedom cannot be force-fed at the point of an occupier's gun. To think otherwise is folly. One has to stop and ponder: How could we have been so impossibly naive? How could we expect to easily plant a clone of U.S. culture, values and government in a country so riven with religious, territorial and tribal rivalries, so suspicious of U.S. motives, and so at odds with the galloping materialism which drives the Western-style economies? ...

The path of diplomacy and reason have gone out the window to be replaced by force, unilateralism and punishment for transgressions. I read most recently with amazement our harsh castigation of Turkey, our longtime friend and strategic ally. It is astonishing that our government is berating the new Turkish government for conducting its affairs in accordance with its own constitution and its democratic institutions.

Indeed, we may have sparked a new international arms race as countries move ahead to develop WMD as a last-ditch attempt to ward off a possible pre-emptive strike from a newly belligerent U.S., which claims the right to hit where it wants. In fact, there is little to constrain this president. Congress, in what will go down in history as its most unfortunate act, handed away its power to declare war for the foreseeable future and empowered this president to wage war at will.

As if that were not bad enough, members of Congress are reluctant to ask questions which are begging to be asked. How long will we occupy Iraq? We have already heard disputes on the numbers of troops which will be needed to retain order. What is the truth? How costly will the occupation and rebuilding be? No one has given a straight answer. How will we afford this long-term massive commitment, fight terrorism at home, address a serious crisis in domestic health care, afford behemoth military spending and give away billions in tax cuts amidst a deficit which has climbed to over $340 billion for this year alone? We cower in the shadows while false statements proliferate. We accept soft answers and shaky explanations because to demand the truth is hard, or unpopular or may be politically costly.

But, I contend that, through it all, the people know. The American people unfortunately are used to political shading, spin and the usual chicanery they hear from public officials. They patiently tolerate it up to a point. But there is a line. It may seem to be drawn in invisible ink for a time, but eventually it will appear in dark colors, tinged with anger. When it comes to shedding American blood -- when it comes to wreaking havoc on civilians, on innocent men, women and children, callous dissembling is not acceptable. Nothing is worth that kind of lie -- not oil, not revenge, not re-election, not somebody's grand pipe dream of a democratic domino theory.

And mark my words, the calculated intimidation which we see so often of late by the "powers that be" will only keep the loyal opposition quiet for just so long. Because eventually, like it always does, the truth will emerge. And when it does, this house of cards, built of deceit, will fall.

-- Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia has been a member of the Senate since 1958.

Speaker disrupts RC graduation" -- this is the headline in the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. The article describes how commencement speaker Chris Hedges was booed off the stage for making an anti-war speech at the Rockford College graduation on Saturday, May 17.

Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter and veteran war correspondent who has reported from war-torn countries for 15 years. He is also the author of the acclaimed War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning.

Rockford College officials pulled the plug on his microphone three minutes after he began to speak. The college president told Hedges to wrap it up, and he resumed his speech to the sound of boos and foghorns. Some graduates and audience members turned their backs to Hedges. Others rushed up the aisle to protest the remarks; one student tossed his cap and gown to the stage before leaving.

Chris Hedges joined Democracy Now! in our studio on May 21, 2003, to speak with host Amy Goodman about what happened.

Amy Goodman: Just tell us what happened this weekend. Why did you go to Rockford College in Illinois?

Chris Hedges: I was invited to give the commencement address. Given that the book is an explication of war and the poison that war is and what it does to individuals and societies and that since the book came out I have spoken extensively about that, that is, of course, what I was prepared to speak about when I got to Rockford. What I was not prepared for was the response. I have certainly spoken at events where people disagreed -- that is to be expected. But to be silenced and to have people clamber onto the platform with the threat of physical violence was something new, and frightening.

Goodman: Did the police actually have to take you off?

Hedges: People had to be escorted. I was trying to read the speech so I wasn't sort of watching what was going around me but I believe about three students managed to get on the platform; they had to be escorted off. And then as the diplomas were being handed out, campus security took me off campus.

Hedges: And what was the response of other officials on the stage?

Goodman: I think all of us were surprised at how vociferous the reaction was and how angry people were. It began almost before I said anything and I think you'll hear that in the tape. I really didn't manage to get much out before significant sectors of the crowd began to drown me out and made it very hard for anyone, I think, in the audience to hear what I was saying.

Goodman: You [were speaking] at Jane Addams' school, Rockford College. Who was Jane Addams?

Hedges: Well, she was one of the great moral and intellectual figures of the 20th century. She founded Hull House, which was for immigrants -- this was sort of before the state got involved in social welfare. ... She was just a remarkable figure, a remarkable intellect and a pacifist who won the Nobel Prize for peace and spoke out against World War I, against American entry into the war, and she was booed off the stage, for instance, at Carnegie Hall. So all I knew about Rockford College was this titanic figure in American intellectual thought and one of the great moral leaders of our country. So, to be shouted down at her alma mater -- there's a very sad kind of irony to that, of course.

Goodman: So you were taken off by security?

Hedges: Well yeah. I think what was so disturbing was that the crowd wasn't just angry, but there was that undercurrent or possibility of violence. The fact that people actually stormed up past those to get onto the podium and there was a feeling that it was better to have me removed from the ceremony before the conclusion, before the awarding of the diplomas.

Goodman: You are the author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. You have reported from many war zones, you've been in Guatemala, you've been in El Salvador, you've been in Bosnia, you were in the Iraq during the Persian Gulf War, you were held by Iraqi Republican Guard. Can you talk about some of those experiences?

Hedges: You know, as I looked out on the crowd -- that is exactly what my book is about. It is about the suspension of individual conscience, and probably consciousness, for the contagion of the crowd for that euphoria that comes with patriotism. The tragedy is that -- and I've seen it in conflict after conflict or society after society that plunges into war -- with that kind of rabid nationalism comes racism and intolerance and a dehumanization of the other. And it's an emotional response. People find a kind of ecstasy, a kind of belonging, a kind of obliteration of their alienation in that patriotic fervor that always does come in wartime.

As I gave my talk and I looked out on the crowd, I was essentially witnessing things that I had witnessed in the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina or in squares in Belgrade or anywhere else. Crowds, especially crowds that become hunting packs, are very frightening. People chanted the kind of clichs and aphorisms and jingoes that are handed to you by the state. "God Bless America" or people were chanting "send him to France" -- this kind of stuff and that kind of contagion leads ultimately to tyranny; it's very dangerous and it has to be stopped.

I've seen it in effect take over countries. But of course, it breaks my heart when I see it in my country. ...

And, of course, [my book] was interpreted as anti-military, which it is not. I mean, what I write about in the book and what I speak about is about war: how war is used as an instrument, the danger of war, why war should always be a last resort. What happens when we wage war without justifiable cause? What happens to ourselves? What happens to others?

Goodman: And you've written a new book?

Hedges: Yes I have. It's called What Every Person Should Know About War. It's really in some ways geared towards those 17- and 18-year-old kids who believe the myth of war. I think both books are an attempt to demythologize war and explain war as it is. The Army has studies at length [about] what war does to individuals, how to create more efficient killers, and it goes through and answers a lot of those questions, that if they get asked, often don't get answered.

--From a transcript of a May 21, 2003, interview on the national listener-sponsored radio and television show Democracy Now! The text of Chris Hedges' commencement address can be found at feature/2003/05/22/hedges/index.html

Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman will be one of the speakers at the national conference and 80th anniversary celebration of the War Resisters League, July 18-20, to be held at Colorado College. The conference, "Globalizing Resistance: Nonviolence in the Age of Terror" will include workshops on war tax resistance, the militarization of space, nonviolence and simple living, new nuclear weapons research and many other topics. Among the other speakers are Kathy Kelly of Voices in the Wilderness and author John Nichols. Deadline to register is July 1. For more, visit, e-mail or call 212/228-0450.

From your letters I know some of you are curious as to why journalists like me keep opening the Pandora's box of democracy; why we come round and round to what ails America -- the bribing of Congress, the desecration of the environment, corporate tax havens, secrecy, fraud on Wall Street, the arrogance of ideology, the pretensions of power. Do we delight in the dark side of human experience? you ask. Do we never see good in the world? Or was Nietzsche right: that the Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad?

I can only speak for myself, of course. And I confess to thinking of journalism as the social equivalent to a medical diagnosis. My doctor owes me candor; I pay him for it. Candor could save my life.

I like to think journalists are paid for candor, too; society needs to know what could kill us, whether it's too many lies or too much pollution. Napoleon left instructions that he was not to be awakened if the news from the front were good; with good news, he told his secretary, there is no hurry. But if the news were bad, he said, "Rouse me instantly, for then there is not a moment to be lost." Think of journalism as a kind of early warning system -- iceberg spotting in the choppy waters of democracy.

But there's another reason for what we do. I'm reminded of it every year at this time, when my thoughts about the honor and respect we pay to our nation's soldiers on Memorial Day are colored by its proximity to D-Day.

I was just 10 years old when the allies landed on Normandy on June 6, 1944. I couldn't then imagine what it must have been like on those beaches when our world was up for grabs and men spilled their blood and guts to save it. I never knew what it was like until 15 years ago when I accompanied some veterans from Texas who had fought at Normandy and survived, and were now returning to retrace their steps. Jose Lopez was one of the veterans that joined me on that journey.

Lopez said of his experiences as a soldier, "I was really very, very afraid. That I want to scream. I want to cry and we see other people was laying wounded and screaming and everything and it's nothing you could do. We could see them groaning in the water and we keep walking."

Jose Lopez went on to win the Congressional Medal of Honor, our nation's highest honor for gallantry in action. But searching for the place he landed that day, he didn't want to talk about the Medal of Honor. He just wanted to be alone with his memories. ...

Every Memorial Day I think about what these men did and what we owe them. They didn't go through hell so Kenny Boy Lay could betray his investors and workers at Enron, or for a political system built on legal bribery. It wasn't for corporate tax havens in Bermuda, or an economic system driven by the law of the jungle, or so a handful of media buccaneers could turn the public airwaves into private sewers.

Sure, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, freedom makes it possible for people to be crooks, but so does communism, and fascism, and monarchy. Democracy is about doing better. It's about fairness, justice and human rights, and yes, it's about equality, too; look it up.

I was never called on to do what soldiers do; I'll never know if I might have had their courage. But a journalist can help keep the record straight, on their behalf. They thought democracy was worth fighting for, even dying for. The least we can do is to help make democracy worthy of them.

-- Bill Moyers is the host of NOW With Bill Moyers, a weekly television show on PBS where these comments were broadcast on May 23, 2003.

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