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Sean Penn In Baghdad: Substance Over Image

When they realized that Sean Penn had arrived in Baghdad unannounced, the Western journalists in the city were taken aback. Ultimately, they seemed more surprised by the great distance between the media images of him and the man they actually met.

Quite a few other famous actors in the United States have expressed strong opposition to the impending war against Iraq. But so far, only one has traveled there so that actions and words could speak loudly together.

What Sean Penn said is still resonating.

After accompanying Penn to Baghdad and joining him on a wide range of visits -- including with UNICEF workers, Iraqi officials, patients in hospitals and young children in schools -- I sat with Penn as he wrote on a pad at a restaurant inside the Al-Rashid Hotel. Hours later, he was reading his words aloud at a news conference overflowing with reporters, photographers and TV crews from all over the world.

"I am a citizen of the United States of America," he began. "I believe in the Constitution of the United States, and the American people. Ours is a government designed to function of, by, and for the people. I am one of those people, and a privileged one."

Penn spoke quietly, with evident sincerity. This was the time for a kind of summing up. For the most part during his three-day visit, Penn had gone out of his way to avoid the cameras, saying that he would share his thoughts at a press conference just prior to leaving Baghdad.

Now, as he continued with his statement, the room was still. Penn said that he was "privileged to have lived a life under our Constitution that has allowed me to dream and prosper." And he continued: "In response to these privileges I feel, both as an American and as a human being, the obligation to accept some level of personal responsibility for the policies of my government, both those I support and any that I may not. Simply put, if there is a war or continued sanctions against Iraq, the blood of Americans and Iraqis will be on our hands."

And then, Sean Penn added: "My trip here is to personally record the human face of the Iraqi people so that their blood -- along with that of American soldiers -- would not be invisible on my own hands. I sit with you here today in the hopes that any of us present may contribute in any way to a peaceful resolution to the conflict at hand."

At a time when fame is so routinely seen as an end in itself, or as a way to accumulate more wealth and power, Penn has become conspicuous for his willingness to take some real risks on behalf of peace. Predictably, the vilification began immediately from jingoistic media outlets like Fox News Channel and the New York Post. Distortion is a big business.

When our country appears to be on the verge of war, stepping out of line is always hazardous. All kinds of specious accusations fly. Whether you travel to Baghdad or hold an anti-war sign on main street back home, some people will accuse you of serving the propaganda interests of the foreign foe. But the only way to prevent your actions from being misconstrued is to do nothing. The only way to avoid the danger of having your words distorted is to keep your mouth shut.

In the functional category of "use it or lose it," the First Amendment remains just a partially realized promise. To the extent that it can be fulfilled, democracy becomes actual rather than theoretical. But that requires a multiplicity of voices. And when the drumbeat of war threatens to drown out all those refusing to harmonize with it, the imperative to dissent becomes paramount.

Sean Penn has described the challenge well: "I would hope that all Americans will embrace information available to them outside conventional channels." And, speaking personally, he expressed the desire "to find my own voice on matters of conscience."

A collection of Norman Solomon's recent columns on media coverage of Iraq is posted at

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