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A citizen's duty is to ferret out the truth

Published December 31, 2003

As a journalist, I have a simple New Year's resolution: During these times of flag-waving and ultrapolitical correctness and conservatism, I will continue to be a good American citizen and a patriot.

Being a good citizen and a patriot during 2004 means unequivocally and unapologetically expressing what I consider to be the truth and the reality about our national politics, our federal policies and President Bush.

Let us start right now.

Since the terrorists attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush and his fellow Republicans have redefined what being an American means. In almost all of his speeches justifying his international policies and many of his domestic policies, Bush plays a cynical political game of exploiting the memories of 9/11.

He has spawned a national siege mentality that fluctuates on the security alert scale between "Code Yellow" and "Code Orange." Without feeling under siege, how else can we account for the fact that most Americans believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the World Trade Center disaster, that we are safer because U.S. soldiers pulled the bedraggled fallen dictator out of a filthy hole in the ground?

Bush can get away with this cynical game because too many Americans have no sense of what being a real citizen of a democracy means. Poll after poll indicate that most Americans have been willingly duped into believing half-truths and outright lies. What else explains the fact that most of us trust Bush's leadership despite evidence that he dissembled to win support for the war in Iraq and that he has no discernible postwar exit strategy?

Real citizens demand the truth because they know that the first principle of living in a democracy is their obligation to know the truth.

Real citizens do not wait for their elected officials and their opinion leaders to tell them what they need to know. Instead, they seek what they need to know, demanding the truth when they ask for it.

We have allowed Bush to routinely mislead us, thus relinquishing our obligation to know. The most obvious result - which we will regret for a generation - is the secrecy with which the administration surrounds itself. Such secrecy has led to the erosion of the country's civil liberties on a scale not seen before. As writer Marianne Means points out, the "Bush administration has removed millions of documents from public view, stiffened resistance to press inquiries and stonewalled congressional requests for information."

Bushites, therefore, have no reason to give a damn about the public interest, and the public, through acquiescence, does not seem to care much about its own interest. We should be demanding that someone in the Bush administration tells us the truth. Someone, perhaps the trusted Colin Powell, should have told us that Iraq had not purchased "yellow cake" from "an African country," that no credible evidence suggested Hussein had stockpiles of WMD, that Bush was hell-bent on going to war.

The best comments I have read on the relation between the public interest and democracy are those of Israeli commentator Ze'ev Sternhell: "What is the nature of the public interest and who serves it better - someone who exposes the truth about government actions, or someone who helps whitewash the facts? Is the public interest better served by someone who hides behind an administrative hierarchy and clings to dry regulations, or by someone who decides to act in breach of the regulations and thereby ensures that the public is informed about crucial facts?

"It's worth reminding those who may have forgotten that the government is a trust owned by the ordinary citizen and that those who hold government positions are no more than trustees. Therefore, to know the facts is not only the right of the citizen, it is his duty and obligation, so that he will be able to carry out his role as owner of the trust. In a democracy that is worthy of the name, the citizen is active day in and day out: His role is not confined to casting his vote every few years. It follows that without the free flow of information, democracy is voided of most of its content."

Unfortunately, much of the press - the White House's natural and necessary adversary - has been steamrollered into giving the president a bye when we should be all up in his face. Except for a few court stances on environmental issues and the Democrats' refusal to confirm the most extreme of Bush's judicial nominees, the wrongheaded arrogance of this administration goes virtually unchecked.

Where is what the legendary Walter Lippmann referred to as the "indispensable opposition"? For 2004, more citizens need to resolve to be part of the indispensable, loyal opposition to protect the public interest.

[Last modified December 31, 2003, 02:01:14]

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