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Freedom means nothing without dissent

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 30, 2003

The war in Iraq is bringing out the best in American fighting men and women in harm's way. It's also bringing out the worst in some Americans on opposing sides of the war. The public dialogue is getting as ugly and rancorous as the U.N. Security Council debate over whether to go to war. First, we turned on the French, pouring their wine down the toilet and boycotting anything French (thank goodness French poodles have been spared). Now we're turning on each other, smashing Dixie Chicks CDs and lashing out at antiwar Hollywood actors.

Last week, United Way of Tampa Bay canceled a fundraising appearance by Susan Sarandon, an Academy Award-winning actor and outspoken critic of the war and President Bush, after three dozen donors and others complained. The decision to uninvite Sarandon -- her presence was deemed "divisive" by United Way officials -- provoked protests from other donors, led to the resignation of a board member and left this umbrella charity group engulfed in divisive controversy.

To oppose the war or even question it is to risk being labeled anti-American or worse. We are becoming lost in the fog of an emotional patriotism that brooks no dissent. We need to find a civil clearing.

Don't enough people around the world hate us without Americans hating each other because of differences on the war? Let's get a grip on our emotions, lower our voices and remember what freedom means. It means nothing if dissenting opinions are not tolerated. Someone once said that the freedom to be agreeable is not freedom at all. There is no right more fundamental to our free society than the right to disagree, no matter how offensive our words are to others. Antiwar protesters hoisting "Bush is Hitler" signs disgust and anger me, but they have the right to express their vile opinions and loathing of the president. Many of us have trouble tolerating their rage and contempt, but tolerate it we must.

Some say that dissent on the home front demoralizes our men and women on the war front. I doubt that, given that the great majority of Americans support the war and nearly everyone, including rational opponents of the war, is behind the troops and praying for their safe return to their families.

I can understand why Americans are feeling stress. Much of the world seems to hate us or want to kill us. The threat of terrorism is with us every day. The economy is stalled and anxiety about the future is growing. The war had its ups and downs the first week of fighting, but the outcome is not in doubt. The only question is at what price in American blood.

After the relatively easy and painless military victories in the first Persian Gulf War and Kosovo, maybe we were lulled into believing that war with Iraq would be the cakewalk some of the superhawks in Washington predicted. But we should have known that war is hell for soldiers and civilians, and that not even our high-tech weapons and precision bombs can change that fact. Yes, we're taking casualties in Iraq. American soldiers are being killed, wounded and taken prisoner by the Iraqis. But as one retired general said on television the other night, in the first week of the war more Americans died in traffic accidents at home than on the battlefield in Iraq. That, of course, comes as no comfort to the families of the dead and missing.

Another problem is that we're being overwhelmed by news and images from the war. Too much war news is better than too little, but the 24/7 cable television coverage is making it harder to follow the story and to keep it in perspective.

"If war is hell," wrote William Powers in the National Journal last week, "wading through all this wartime journalism is fast becoming a kind of purgatory. Some days, the deeper you go into the war coverage, the less you know. On television, there's just too much news to absorb, from too many points of view, and no obvious way of sorting or ranking the offerings."

So maybe we ought to pull ourselves away from the war on television and try to clear our heads. The way we can best honor our fighting men and women is to uphold the values and freedoms that make us the nation that we are. We should be able to disagree on the war or any other issue without going for each other's throats. It's okay to boycott French wine and cheese and German luxury cars, if that will make you feel better. Cancel that trip to Paris and go to Tony Blair's London instead. And boycott any movie or television show that stars Martin Sheen, Susan Sarandon or any other antiwar celebrity. That's your right. Exercise it and respect the right of others to disagree.

Hey folks, in case you've forgotten, this is the United States of America, the freest nation on this earth. Let's keep it that way.

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