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Wednesday, February 16, 2005 | The degree to which our nation has swung to the hard, conservative right since 9/11 is remarkable. One thinks of continental Europe in the 1920s as the reaction to Bolshevism gradually strengthened and hardened the right and led it to world conquest under fascist banners in the 1930s.
Could America become a fascist state? Unlikely, as we, like the British, are favored by geographical separations that help protect our institutions from the outside buffeting and internal instabilities that rocked Continental Europe. The problem for Americans, more insidious, is that we are witnessing the gradual erosion of our freedoms, and indeed of our system, little by little.
The same thing happened before, in the 1950s, under the name of McCarthyism, and it is worth noting that the hard-core political right responsible for the present erosion of freedoms likes to compare 2005 with the 1950s. It has made an equivalent between the domestic anti-communist struggles of the Fifties and today’s struggle against what goes by the name of militant Islam.
It is a false comparison. If McCarthyism was a black period in our history it is precisely because the internal danger we faced never merited the hysterical steps taken by government to combat it – which included Senate and House hearings, indictments and blacklists – and which did so much to darken the lives of so many Americans. So soon after the death of playwright Arthur Miller we should remember the heroes who stood up to the government steamroller.
If the internal threat of communism never merited the excesses of McCarthyism, militant Islam deserves them even less. As Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote last year in overturning the government’s claim that it could hold 9/11 detainees indefinitely without trial: “It is during our most challenging and uncertain moments that our commitment to due process is most severely tested.” Her words reflected Justice Robert Jackson’s stirring dissent in the 1944 Korematsu case, involving the World War II internment of Japanese Americans.
The key difference between communism and fascism on one hand, and militant Islam on the other is this: the former were offensive, out to conquer the world. Militant Islam is on the defensive, fearing the world is conquering it.
The right’s equation of militant Islam with the tyrannies of the 1930s has this in mind: Making people afraid helps justify government’s curtailing of rights and freedoms. The language used by the Bush administration in its re-election campaign was fear-based. Islamists hate us, said Bush, because “they hate our freedoms.” We are up against an “axis of evil,” he said, where a “smoking gun could become a mushroom cloud.” These dangers justify drawing a line in the sand and telling nations “you are either with us or against us” – a phrase, unbeknownst to Bush speechwriters, that comes straight from Lenin’s “those who are not with us are against us.”
Once people are sufficiently afraid, they’re more willing to make sacrifices. The first sacrifice in times of putative danger is always the same: freedom of speech and the press. The first casualty of war is truth, and the way we find the truth is through a vigorous exchange of ideas through speech and print.
The rise of right wing talk radio and the Rupert Murdoch neoconservative media – from the Weekly Standard to Fox News – are possible because we guarantee freedom of expression. We know how vital to Bush’s war in Iraq and re-election both talk radio and the Murdoch media were, and we know how supportive they are of Republicans and conservative causes. The problem is that the success of these outlets depends on their diminishing or silencing other voices and limiting the range of debate. It is an issue as old as our nation, reaching back to the Sedition Laws of 1798. When government, rightly or wrongly, invokes national security, a majority of Americans salutes and gets in line.
The end to these stampedes to the right and suppressions of freedom comes only through overreach – as McCarthy overreached by taking on the entire government, and as Bush nearly did last year when a bad war would have cost him a second term had he not sufficiently scared people into narrowly re-electing him.
Here are some examples of how freedom of speech and opinion are under attack:
Government suppression of the portions of the 9/11 Commission’s findings relative to explicit intelligence warnings about possible airline hijackings and suicide operations. Why was this part of the report, which deals with 52 specific intelligence reports to government, held back from the public during the election campaign?
The storm of right wing censure directed at University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill for his essay about the victims of 9/11. The essay was certainly outrageous, but nothing that remotely transgresses the limits of free speech or requires his dismissal from the university, as the Republican governor and the right wing establishment now seek.
The resignation of CNN executive Eason Jordan over fears that CNN would be “unfairly tarnished” (i.e. by Fox News, talk radio etc.) if he remained in his job. Jordan said at a meeting in Switzerland this month that some journalists killed in Iraq had been targeted by U.S. forces, albeit accidentally. His comments immediately led to a rightwing website lobbying for his dismissal. The fact is that nine of the 54 journalists killed in Iraq so far have died as a result of American fire
Finally, my own resignation from the Union-Tribune in December over the publisher’s killing of a column explaining why the Jewish vote went overwhelmingly to John Kerry in November. The suppression in this country, starting in Washington, of debate on Bush Middle East policy, and on relations between Jews and Arabs in general, amounts to official censure. Through voluntary media censorship, feckless publishers take aim at the source of their greatest strength – free speech.
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune, and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Most recently, he was a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.