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"Patriotism" and "Treason": A New Trend in Irresponsible Wartime Rhetoric

by Ben Fritz (ben@spinsanity.org)
October 29, 2001

During a time of war, terms like patriotism and treason have a new context and a deeper meaning. War often stirs feelings of patriotism amongst citizens as the nation unites against a threat to its existence. Charges of treason, of course, carry much more weight when a country has enemies actively seeking its destruction.

However, while war may provide more opportunities to raise the issues of patriotism and treason, it has also historically provided opportunities to use this loaded rhetoric irresponsibly. Now, again, this is taking place. In the last week, there has been a significant rise in the inappropriate use of these terms by pundits discussing the American war against terrorism.

Beginnings with Paul Craig Roberts

It wasn't very long after September 11 that this sort of emotionally charged rhetoric began to surface. On September 19, conservative columnist Paul Craig Roberts wrote a column entitled "Terrorism or Treason?". It's essentially an overview of recent history in which Roberts grossly simplifies American policy in order to blame liberal elements in the government for the terrorist attacks. As part of this, he charges that the U.S. government sold communications equipment that cannot be monitored to "the terrorists" and that the U.S. refused to extradite Mohamed Atta, one of the suspected perpetrators of the September 11 attacks, to Israel. Roberts also blames opponents of racial profiling and supporters of a U.S. immigration policy that has allowed in a "large Muslim population base [that] has allowed fanatical terrorists to integrate themselves in our society."

Regardless of the validity of these claims, the conclusion to his column is deeply disturbing. "Once Americans begin dying in droves," he writes, "we will remember that treason is real and deadly."

Treason is defined by dictionary.com as "Violation of allegiance toward one's country or sovereign, especially the betrayal of one's country by waging war against it or by consciously and purposely acting to aid its enemies." At a time of war, this is a serious charge indeed. Notice that there is absolutely no evidence for it in Roberts' piece. At the worst, his allegations amount to an argument that government officials made bad policy choices. There is no reason to believe, nor does Roberts even allege, that Muslims have been allowed into the U.S. or communications equipment was sold to terrorists by people who actually wanted to betray their country. Yet Roberts attempts to link those decisions to a vague charge of "treason." This is simply an early and particularly outrageous attempt by a pundit to condemn his enemies using a now heavily loaded word.

Picking up steam

As the U.S. has engaged an identifiable enemy--the Taliban--and deployed our armed forces, the use of loaded, war-related rhetoric has only expanded. In the past week, particularly, there has been a disturbing expansion of the trend.

One example of this trend already pointed out on this website came from Spinsanity's good friend Ann Coulter. As Brendan wrote last week, Coulter opens a recent column with this outrageous statement: "Liberals are up to their old tricks again. Twenty years of treason haven't slowed them down." What follows is a broad rant against any and all liberal targets, from the New York Times to Vietnam War opponents. Again, however, even if we were to assume all of Coulter's claims are true, she still has no evidence to back up her claim that liberals are actively supporting enemies of the United States.

Unfortunately, there have been yet more uses of the term treason. Another recent one came from columnist Paul Weyrich, a prominent conservative religious figure, who attempts to qualify his use of the term somewhat by writing, "In an earlier age, this kind of behavior would be considered treason." Regardless of when he says the term would be used, however, Weyrich is accusing his someone of betraying the United States.

Weyrich's accusation is particularly galling as it is based on a blatant lie. His target is CNN, which he says gave Osama Bin Laden six questions "in advance" of an interview and is "giving the enemy time to expound his viewpoint over our airwaves." In fact, however, while CNN did submit questions to Bin Laden, they were not "in advance" of an interview but constituted the interview itself, as Bin Laden refused to be interviewed live. In addition, CNN chairman Walter Isaacson specifically said in a New York Times article that he would only air the interview if Bin Laden's responses were news and not if he "just spews propaganda." Not only is Weyrich's accusation of "treason" outrageous, but it is based on a gross misrepresentation of the truth.

Somewhat less egregious, but still disturbing, have been two recent uses of the heavily loaded term "patriotic" by liberals. A simple example came in an "op-ad" from the website TomPaine.com that ran in the New York Times. In opposing the economic stimulus bill as biased towards the wealthy and corporations, it questions the patriotism of the bill's author, Rep. Bill Thomas (R-CA). "What do we call a man so willing to put the agenda of his political patrons above the national interest in times of war and economic hardship?" it asks. "Do we call him a patriot?" Not only is this questioning of Thomas's patriotism offensive and unfounded, but the supposition that it is specific to our current problems is faulty, as the tax policy in question is of the type often supported by Republicans.

Another example came from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who utilized the patriotism line of attack recently in a column attacking the Bush administration for not taking the threats our nation faces seriously enough. In it, she wrote that the government should "[b]e critical of corporations for cutting back on jobs in order to boost profits and report earnings and have stocks go up, when the patriotic thing at this point is not to cut back on jobs but to employ as many people as possible."

Backhandedly calling businesses that lay people off unpatriotic is unfair. Dowd simply brushes over the fact that the United States is almost certainly in a recession, and businesses that don't cut back on costs face consequences ranging from severe losses to the prospect of bankruptcy. Patriotism cannot overrule the basic rules of a capitalist economy--and Dowd should be ashamed of accusing businesses that follow them of dismissing their duty to the country.

With great power comes great responsibility

No one can dispute that at a time of war, patriotism and treason are incredibly important concepts that have a real bearing on national politics. Terms like "patriotic" and "treason" are powerful words, however, and, as the saying goes, "with great power comes great responsibility." Those who value thoughtful, rational debate should be concerned when these terms are used irresponsibly by those who shape American political discourse. Their continued use to attack opponents will have two effects: to unfairly castigate political opponents and to dilute the terms of their real meanings. Neither outcome is a healthy one.

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Related links:
- Coulter goes even farther off the deep end (Brendan Nyhan, 10/18)

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