Attacks on dissent since 9/11
In recent weeks, President Bush, conservative commentators, and Republican officials have tried to shut down debate over Bush's military leadership by claiming that Kerry and other Democrats are encouraging terrorists and that America's enemies are on their side. Regrettably, these anti-democratic smears have been used widely in the three years since Sept. 11.
The tactic of attacking dissenters has been revived with a vengeance in the current presidential campaign. Senator Zell Miller, D-Ga., said at the Republican convention that "while young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats' manic obsession to bring down our Commander in Chief" and reiterated this point in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. Since then, claims that Kerry's criticism aids terrorists and that terrorists in Al Qaeda or Iraq support Kerry have run rampant, as Dana Milbank showed in the Washington Post.
Most prominently, Bush said the following in reference to Kerry: "You can embolden an enemy by sending a mixed message. You can dispirit the Iraqi people by sending mixed messages. You send the wrong message to our troops by sending mixed messages." Appearing on Fox News, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah said terrorists "are going to throw everything they can between now and the election to try and elect Kerry" and added that Democrats are "consistently saying things that I think undermine our young men and women who are serving over there." On NBC's "Meet the Press," Republican Senate candidate John Thune said the words of his opponent, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle "embolden the enemy." House Speaker Denny Hastert admitted he was speculating at a Republican fundraiser, saying "I don't have data or intelligence to tell me one thing or another, [but] I would think they [Al Qaeda] would be more apt to go [for] somebody who would file a lawsuit with the World Court or something rather than respond with troops." And Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage described Iraqi insurgents as "trying to influence the election against President Bush."
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt has also echoed this view, stating Sept. 20 that Kerry's goal of withdrawing US troops during his first term sends "a clear signal of defeat and retreat to America's enemies that will make the world a far more dangerous place." Schmidt added Sunday that Kerry's statements of his views on Iraq send "mixed signals to our enemies and to our allies, the consequences of which will make America less secure." Another offender was syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, who wrote that victory "is a concept foreign to a man [Kerry] who has demonstrated his preference - first with Vietnam and now with Iraq - to help America's enemies in times of crisis far more than helping his own country." And on Sept. 23, New York Post columnist Ralph Peters claimed that "the conscienceless Sen. John Kerry" is "doing the work of the enemy propagandists of yesteryear." According to Peters, Kerry's "mad claims of disaster and his inability to maintain a firm position unquestionably give aid and comfort to the enemy." (The liberal group Media Matters has compiled an additional list.)
The use of these tactics dates back to the immediate aftermath of the attacks, when Andrew Sullivan, the late Michael Kelly, and other commentators quickly began to suggest that dissenters were on the side of the terrorists. Sullivan twice suggested that anti-war leftists were part of a real or potential "fifth column," a term that directly implies treasonous behavior on behalf of a foreign enemy. For his part, Kelly labeled pacifists whom he disagreed with not as misguided, but as "objectively pro-terrorist."
Then, in a December 6, 2001 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, the Bush administration got into the act. During his opening statement, Attorney General John Ashcroft made the broad accusation that critics of the government who disagreed with its post-9/11 policies were aiding terrorists. "We need honest, reasoned debate and not fear-mongering," he said. "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."
In February 2002, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle was targeted for criticizing President Bush's use of the phrase "axis of evil" and saying US success in the war on terror "is still somewhat in doubt." In the first instance, talk show host Rush Limbaugh said, "In essence, Daschle has chosen to align himself with the axis of evil," while Fox News commentator Oliver North said Daschle was "setting the ground works for our adversaries to take on American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines." And in the latter case, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said Daschle's "divisive comments have the effect of giving aid and comfort to our enemies by allowing them to exploit divisions in our country," while then-Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., added, "How dare Senator Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism, especially when we have troops in the field."
Several months later, Democrats began to raise questions about what President Bush and the administration knew about the Sept. 11 attacks before they took place. In a May 18, 2002 article in the Washington Post, White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett quickly charged that their statements were "exactly what our opponents, our enemies, want us to do." This sentiment was echoed by conservative commentators such as Fox News "Beltway Boys" co-host Fred Barnes, who said Democrats "looked like not a loyal opposition but a disloyal opposition."
In early 2003, a number of commentators labelled war opponents as "pro-Saddam" in the period immediately before and during the war, including Christopher Hitchens, David Frum, the New York Post, James Taranto of OpinionJournal.com and Sullivan. The New York Sun even went so far as to advocate treason prosecutions of protestors against war with Iraq. The use of these tactics then largely settled down before returning to the forefront in the past month.
Of course, no one actually knows whether Al Qaeda has a position on the presidential election, or what its reaction is to domestic political debate in this country. Moreover, such matters are ultimately irrelevant - America is a free society that is strengthened, not weakened, by vigorous debate over the country's policies. But sadly, three years after Sept. 11, attempts to use the attacks to shut down dissent continue.
Note: A shorter version of this article appeared in our Philadelphia Inquirer column today.