Hail the loyal opposition

As I write these words, our armed forces, the most technologically sophisticated in the world, are killing people in Afghanistan.

By the time you read this, terrorists may have again struck this country in some ghastly fashion. Even if they haven’t, the thought that they might, at any moment, release anthrax or blow up a shopping mall is in all of our minds.

“I swear to God that America will never dream of security or see it,” a videotaped Osama told us, barely an hour after the first cruise missiles started smashing into the ruins of Kabul.

We are beginning to believe him. The notion is also sinking in that we’re in for it for the long haul, and that there will be a lot more of this stuff in the weeks, months and, yes, years ahead.

But what’s been most amazing was the utterly instant pirouette on the part of the media from peacetime blasé cynicism to wartime near-hysteria in less than a day.

Hard to remember now, but George W. Bush was widely viewed as an intellectual lightweight and an accidental, if not illegitimate, president, a month ago. Nobody seemed especially startled that when the attacks came, Dick Cheney was presiding in the White House while the top man was off reading to second-grade kiddies in a Florida classroom.

But everything is different now. Suddenly, in many circles, any criticism of the leader is seen as tantamount to treason. Tom Gutting, city editor of the Texas City Sun, was fired after a column raising doubts about Bush’s leadership. Eileen Foley, a columnist for the Toledo Blade, had her safety threatened after she criticized Bush’s still-baffling behavior Sept. 11.

Remarkably, the normally loud voices screaming “First Amendment” at any sign of sexual censorship are mostly and mysteriously silent.

What’s going on here?

Evidently, there are some people who work, not in gas stations but in high media positions, who think the terrorist attack on America means we need to abandon any sort of critical thinking about this president, this administration and their policies. For them, all that’s appropriate now is blind loyalty. They think we need to stop wondering where the surplus went or what happened to the effort to fix Social Security, because we’re in a war of national survival, and there is no other issue.

Well, guess what. We need voices of dissent now more than ever.

As I have said before, I entirely support the move to wipe out Osama bin Laden and his network and to overthrow the repulsive Taliban. But I think so-called journalists in this country should do everything in their power to make sure that those who disagree are heard.

We also need an important national discussion over what we do next. What happens to Afghanistan afterward? How far do we really want to take this war on terrorism? Do we really want to attack “all terrorists everywhere,’’ as our leader vowed to do?

What if some strongman we support labels his opponents “terrorists” for wanting free elections? What if Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair says next year, OK, you owe us, and now let’s take out the Irish Republican Army? Are we allowed to argue, or only to cheerfully arm?

We don’t just have a right to criticize the president — we have a duty to do so. We have a duty to America and to the ideals that Bush’s office represents. We also have a duty to try and focus attention on our policies toward the Muslim world. We helped produce this situation in the far-off 1980s, by arming fundamentalist rebels to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Hundreds of thousands died. Yet where were we when the Soviets finally left and the country we’d used as our proxy was left devastated? What did we do to help them re-establish some form of normal country?

Pretty much nothing. And nothing could justify Sept. 11. Yet we need to examine how we helped create a situation where 19 intelligent and skilled maniacs trained hard and long to burn themselves, and a lot of us, to death.

Nor can we allow the nation to forget that many other things are going on. Regardless of what the President said, this is not total war, or even declared war. We are bombing and possibly invading Afghanistan, but there is no draft, no rationing, tourists are still bound for Disney World, and this administration has an agenda that in many respects is anathema.

Last weekend, I saw a tremendously impressive man speak to the Michigan Coalition on Human Rights’ annual dinner. Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White was prevented from becoming a federal judge in 1999 by John Ashcroft, then a United States senator, who lied about White’s record in race-baiting tones. That justifiably enraged African-American voters and helped defeat Ashcroft, who is also a narrow religious bigot who seems to have been most enraged that the judge is pro-choice.

Unfortunately, after the U.S. Supremes installed Bush, he was able to install Ashcroft as attorney general. Now, almost daily you can see Minimum John before the cameras, announcing more arrests.

But Ashcroft and Bush also are pushing new wiretap and other legislation that might seriously threaten our civil liberties long after Osama is toast. How do we fight this now?

My cue came from the good judge, who gave a superb speech that proved both how much affirmative action is needed and how much Ashcroft is not, without ever sounding the least bit nasty.

Last week I asked White whether he’d have to tone down what he said, given the war. Even over the phone, I could see the twinkle in his eye. “The president said we should go back to doing whatever we were doing. And that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

And so should we all.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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