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The dissent smackdown

How anti-democratic tactics continue to be used to stifle debate over national security
By Brendan Nyhan (brendan@spinsanity.org)
January 6, 2003

Attacks on dissent related to the war on terrorism and Sept. 11 continued over the holidays with salvos from White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and opponents of Senator Patty Murray, D-WA. More than a year after the 2001 attacks, smear tactics designed to stifle debate about US security policy are still all too common.

Fleischer aimed his attack at Democratic presidential contenders who are beginning to question the Bush administration's homeland security efforts, arguing that enough has not been done to prevent future attacks. In a Dec. 26 New York Times story on the matter, he tried to lay down a marker:

Any candidate who suggests that when the enemy attacks, the blame lies with the United States and not with the enemy does so at great peril to their own political future.

Despite the carefully vague phrasing about "[a]ny candidate," Fleischer is clearly suggesting that any such criticism of US defenses against terrorist attacks is illegitimate. In his crude binary formulation, these candidates are placing blame on the US rather than "the enemy." But this debate is not about the obvious notion that terrorists are at fault for an attack they carry out -- that's a diversionary tactic used to smear critics as unpatriotic. The question is how to prevent such an attack in advance of it taking place and the government's responsibility to take all necessary steps in order to do so. Surely this is a legitimate issue of debate in a presidential campaign.

The administration has previously tried to stifle criticism by labeling its opponents as unpatriotic. Twice before, high-ranking officials have suggested that criticism and dissent actually aid the enemy. In May, White House communications director Dan Bartlett charged that attempts by Democrats to raise questions about information held by the government prior to the Sept. 11 attacks "are exactly what our opponents, our enemies, want us to do." And during an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee the previous December, Attorney General John Ashcroft infamously made an even more explicit statement along these lines:

To those who pit Americans against immigrants, and citizens against non-citizens; to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists - for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.

Fleischer is not the first to try to delegitimize criticism of the administration by suggesting it represents an effort to shift blame away from a hated enemy. Senator Trent Lott, R-Miss., used this tactic twice last year while serving as Minority Leader. "For us to be talking like our enemy is George W. Bush and not Osama bin Laden, that's not right," he said during the debate in May over possible warnings received by the government prior to Sept. 11. Then, in September, he presented the debate over whether President Bush was politicizing the war on terror as a choice between Bush and another evildoer: "Who is the enemy here? The president of the United States or Saddam Hussein?"

The New York Post's John Podhoretz has also been working from the same playbook, claiming in May that Democrats were so desperate to attack Bush that they are "shifting the blame away from Osama bin Laden and militant Islam for the attacks of Sept. 11." Later, he wrote, "The CIA did not attack the United States. Nor did the FBI or [Transportation Secretary] Norm Mineta. This nation was attacked by al Qaeda and remains threatened by that group and by militant Islam."

Recently, this attack was deployed in similar fashion against Senator Patty Murray after her misinformed comments to students in Vancouver, Washington last month prompted a firestorm of criticism:

Osama Bin Laden has been very, very effective ... we've got to ask, why is this man so popular around the world? Why are people so supportive of him in many countries? ... He's been out in these countries for decades, building schools, building roads, building infrastructure, building day-care facilities, building health care facilities, and the people are extremely grateful. It made their lives better. We have not done that. We haven't been out in many of these countries helping them build infrastructure. How would they look at us today if we had been there helping them with some of that rather than just being the people who are going to bomb in Iraq and go to Afghanistan?

As the Washington Post put it in an editorial, "Sen. Murray got a few things very wrong. Osama bin Laden spent a lot more money on terrorist training camps than on day-care centers; the senator appears to have confused him with the fundamentalist charities that have won so much support for the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas on the West Bank." Others have suggested she may have confused or conflated Bin Laden's relatively meager efforts with the stream of Saudi money that has flowed for years to Islamic institutions, and pointed out that she ignored US aid efforts in the Muslim and Arab worlds, including $45 million in food and food security aid for starving Afghans that she supported.

Nonetheless, while Murray has received substantial criticism that has been fairly offered, other attacks have crossed the line. The chairman of the Washington State Republican Party, Chris Vance, adopted Fleischer's approach, stating that her criticism of US policy in the Arab and Muslim worlds constitutes a shifting of blame away from terrorists for the Sept. 11 attacks. In a release, he said that the Senator's comments "sent the message to these students that the United States somehow deserved or brought on the September 11 terrorist attacks. I think all decent people can agree that we most certainly did not, that this was an unprovoked attack of terrorism." Again, this argument is vague and non-rational -- Murray was speaking about Bin Laden's popularity, not the reasons for his actions. (The day after Vance's statement, Rep. George Nethercutt, R-WA, released a statement suggesting Murray is a traitor. "Congress is a place of debate," he said. "I guess we now know which side Sen. Murray will be debating from when Congress resumes.")

As we enter a new presidential campaign in the midst of the ongoing war on terrorism, debate over national security must be frank and open to all points of view, except those that would demonize dissent.

Related links:
-GOP tag team drags down Daschle debate (Brendan Nyhan, 9/28/02)
-Pohodoretz's false choice: dissent or war (Ben Fritz, 6/6/02)
-Axing the tough questions (Brendan Nyhan, 5/21/02)

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