Loyalty and Dissent

The Bush administration maintains its primary foreign policy focus is to defend citizens within our borders against threats posed by violent terrorists. Yet the administration seems more determined to circumscribe the boundaries of acceptable thought than to forestall threats to our physical security. Or more accurately, the administration equates differences in thought and lifestyle with threats to our physical security. In this respect, it follows an old pattern with roots that go back at least as far as the beginnings of the Cold War.

If the administration's initial concern in Iraq really were those weapons of mass destruction, one must ask what the administration is up to now. In a world swarming with dangerous terrorists, there are many other readily available sources of destructive weapons and technologies. Our chemical and nuclear power plants are notoriously lax in their security. Nuclear and weapons facilities throughout the old Soviet Union invite terror and blackmail. Yet an administration willing to spend many billions on Iraq hardly gives these issues any attention.

On the campaign trail the Bush administration maintains the same stance that it has taken in international negotiations: if you are not with us you are against us. A campaign ad running in Iowa charges: "Some are now attacking the president for attacking the terrorists. Some call for us to retreat, putting our national security in the hands of others." The ad urges viewers to tell Congress "to support the President's policy of preemptive self-defense." The ad subtly suggests that critics of the Iraq war are acting in behalf of or at the behest of terrorists or the very least are supportive of them. Yet the president's major critics among the Democrats, whether rightly or wrongly, have argued that fighting a war in Iraq does nothing to staunch the growth of terrorism and may even be counterproductive. This is the argument that deserves attention, but efforts to equate criticism of the war with support for terrorism forestalls necessary debate by demonizing the critics.

Suggestions that dissent verges on support for foreign enemies is not limited to attacks on potential democratic rivals. Robert Fisk, a columnist for the London-based Independent, tells the story of Drew Plummer, a former member of the US Second Armored Division at home on leave: "Asked for his opinion on Iraq by an Associated Press reporter, Plummer replied, 'I just don't agree with what we're doing right now. I don't think our guys should be dying in Iraq. But I'm not a pacifist. I'll do my part.' The US Navy charged Plummer with violating article 134 of the uniform code of military justice: disloyal statements. At his official hearing, he was asked if he 'sympathizes' with the enemy or was considering 'acts of sabotage.' He was convicted and demoted."

The equation of dissent with disloyalty has a long and bipartisan lineage. Our history books tell us that the Cold War was about the containment of a ruthlessly expansive Soviet empire. Indeed, there is little doubt that willingness militarily to limit Soviet expansion in Western Europe played a major role in securing European democracy. But containment was hardly limited to the preservation of territorial space. The Cold War included efforts throughout Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia to treat even social democratic resistance to US supported regimes as being inevitably tied to the Soviets. In one notorious episodes of the early Cold War, a democratic regime in Iran with the effrontery to demand control of its own oil resources was overthrown by the US so that the shah could be restored to power. The shah's secular but repressive and pro-Western regime inspired a fundamentalist movement that further undermined liberties in Iran and threatened the US for decades.

Here at home, the PATRIOT Act continues a long tradition of legislative initiatives that judge the threat to national security by the degree of dissent expressed. Today many look back in horror on abuses of '40s and '50s when membership in left-leaning organizations could disqualify one for a job. But scrutiny went even beyond mere membership. It was not uncommon for congressional committees and administrative bureaucracies to treat expressions of advocacy for racial equality or for women's rights as presumptive commitment to communism and thus as disloyalty. J. Edgar Hoover's lawless FBI continued this pattern with its vindictive war on Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Concerns widely expressed by anti-war and civil liberties advocates are now justified by the words and deeds of this administration. An FBI memo leaked in late November seems both to codify and make explicit the administration's practice. It suggests the government now intends "a coordinated, nationwide effort to collect intelligence" on the anti-war movement. The memorandum singles out lawful protest activities.

Rather than warriors against terror, the Bush administration's actions suggest it is engaged in a cultural war to validate and secure its own conception of ethics, politics, and economics. Those of us holding more pluralistic visions best be prepared to fend off charges of disloyalty.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

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