The Disturbing Sound of Silence

Is there ever a time when silence is the music of democracy? Not that I can imagine. In fact, I can't even think of a situation where a gentle lullaby or the sweet harmony of a string quartet could do it justice. Democracy is the stuff of rock 'n' roll -- loud and sometimes obnoxious -- screeching electric guitars, pounding drums and lyrics amplified to ear-splitting decibels. Freedom is about noise -- irreverent and raucous debate. Silence is the trademark of other forms of government, those that work in darkness and struggle to keep the will of the people hidden.

So when folks like Lynne Cheney, William Bennett and Meistersinger John Ashcroft tell us that it's our patriotic duty to stand in reverent silence for the duration of the War on Terrorism, I have to wonder if they've forgotten what country they live in. This isn't Iraq, North Korea or any of those other countries they want to blow the hell out of. This is the United States, where freedom of speech isn't just tolerated, it's considered part of our strength.

I've been at this business of trying to be a good citizen for some 46 years, and it still astonishes me how the very people who scream God Bless America the loudest are often the ones who seem to understand the least about what the country stands for. Didn't anyone explain to them the basic political values underlying our culture? Were they playing hooky when civics was taught? Do they assume that Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams and James Madison were conformists who never rocked the boat? That Congress and the states were just fooling when they adopted the Bill of Rights? Were they taught that Henry David Thoreau advocated marching to the sound of the same drummer? Or that Robert Frost penned that he took the road most traveled by?

Americans have a history of being cantankerous -- shouting objections, raising hell and generally making life miserable for those in power. And Cheney, Bennett, Ashcroft and the rest of their pack know this well. We know that they know it because that's precisely what they did, often far beyond the bounds of common decency, during Clinton's presidency.

But things are different today, they argue, because now we are at war. But once again their own history betrays their self-righteousness. Only a few years ago, many of these same GOP leaders freely criticized Bill Clinton over his handling of the war in Kosovo. One assumes they didn't consider themselves traitors for doing so. Then there's Michael Tomasky's priceless article in Salon, which establishes that less than two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Robert A. Taft, Mr. Republican himself, gave a speech that offered a stirring defense of wartime criticism as an act of patriotism.

Contrary to what Ari Fleischer said shortly after the terrorist attacks, this would be the worst possible time for Americans to decide they need to "watch what they say." There are too many important issues that need to debated freely and without fear of retribution. Here are just a few:

* Eighty-four years after the "war to end all wars," George W. Bush seems hell bent on starting a "war to end all peace" and our government is pursuing a nuclear arms policy that make Dr. Strangelove look like a sissy.

* We have a president who believes that the people's business is none of the people's business.

* We have an Attorney General who considers civil liberties to be an annoyance (and calico cats to be a sign of the devil).

* Our president is pushing for the adoption of a permanent wartime budget, which will neglect domestic needs while substantially increasing the already huge national debt we are so generously passing on to our children.

* Our national parks and wilderness areas are now under the stewardship of people who have never seen a tree they didn't think would look better as a stack of lumber, or a wilderness area that wouldn't look lovelier with a nice assortment of oil derricks.

* We are being led by people who honestly believe that the principal economic goal of the federal government should be to help rich people get richer.

* We have a president who also believes that Congress should stop bothering him while he's busy running the country.

* And by the way, all of this is being done by a president who didn't actually win the election.

How can anyone seriously argue that silence is the proper response for someone troubled by this state of affairs? Entering into a war, to name the most pressing issue -- especially a war as poorly defined as this one -- is the most serious step a society can take. It puts at risk the lives of our children and commits our nation's resources to the art of destruction, while more creative endeavors shrivel up and die from lack of nourishment. War can fundamentally change the character of a nation, often in ways no one even imagined going in. If freedom of speech doesn't apply here, when all the chips are on the table, then what good is it?

This is no time for silence. It's time to rock 'n' roll.

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