Democracy Demands Dissent

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At 7:00 on a Saturday morning, I was awakened by an anonymous phone caller excoriating me for advocating a non-violent response to the terrorist attacks in a letter to the editor published in the News-Gazette. She called my letter “appalling,” told me “we must stand behind our president,” and equated my stand for peace as disregard and inhumanity towards the victims. When I began to respond to her allegations, she hung up.

My personal encounter with an outraged citizen is a minor chapter in a still-unfolding tale of harassment, intimidation, vandalism, assault, and murder against people perceived as ‘different’ in the wake of the September 11 attacks. As usual, people of color experience the most brutal of these attacks. While writing this, I learned of a Sikh man murdered in front of his gas station in Mesa, Arizona. By the time you read this column, countless people of perceived Middle Eastern descent may have been killed, beaten or harassed. My experience points to a subtler attack on difference, one that jeopardizes the important foundations of a democracy – the respect for minority viewpoints in impassioned debate on the future of the nation.

While I support the right of my early-morning caller to her views, I find her method of expressing them inappropriate. I placed my opinions in the public sphere, and would have welcomed a response within that public sphere. Our country needs intelligent, vigorous, passionate, and public debate about how to respond to the attacks. Waking me at 7 on Saturday morning, however, is personal, disruptive, and vaguely threatening. It conveys the message, “I know where you live.” The call suggests a political vigilantism of citizens bullying and intimidating their dissenting neighbors into silence or compliance. Forced unity isn’t unity at all, and it has no place in a democracy.

Far from bullying me into either agreement or silence, my early-morning caller has redoubled my resolve to oppose the broad-brush ‘war on terrorism’ with determination, vigor and vision. Rather than stand by as the terms of allowable discourse narrow to no wider than a prison cell in the name of fighting a war to make us ‘free’, I raise my voice in opposition to the rumblings of war. Despite patriotic myths of a nation standing free and united behind our troops, war has always brought out the worst in America:

  • During the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, pro-war mobs threatened citizens into signing enlistment papers and attacked anti-war meetings. Soldiers in the field are known to have broken into Mexican homes, attacked civilians, and raped women.
  • In February, 1864, during the Civil War, off-duty black soldiers were attacked in Zainesville, Ohio to cries of “kill the nigger!” Many other racist attacks took place in Northern cities.
  • During the Spanish-American War of 1898, New York City officials refused parade permits to antiwar groups while granting them to pro-war groups.
  • In the bloody aftermath of the Spanish-American War, as our nation tried to quell rebellion among the populations of former Spanish colonies that were handed over to US rule under the settlement treaty, hundreds of thousands of Filipino civilians were killed. According to eyewitness reports, “our men have been relentless, have killed to exterminate men, women, children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people from lads of ten up.” One US soldier wrote, “Our fighting blood was up, and we all wanted to kill ‘niggers’. This shooting human beings beats rabbit hunting all to pieces!”
  • During World War I, the Espionage Act of 1917 declared anti-war activism to be a crime, and provided prison terms of up to 20 years for violators. Nine hundred people went to prison under the Espionage Act, which is still on the books.
  • Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt ordered that all men, women, and children of Japanese nationality or descent be arrested without warrant, indictment, or hearing and taken to internment camps, where they lived for the duration of the war. 110,000 people were removed from their homes to live in prison-like camps. Three-quarters of them were US citizens.
  • At No Gun Ri, South Korea, in July 1950, American soldiers machine-gunned hundreds of civilians beneath a bridge. The US government dismissed the allegations until last year, when ex-GIs came forward with their stories.
  • On March 16, 1968, a company of American soldiers went into the Vietnamese village of My Lai, systematically rounded up all the inhabitants, forced them into a ditch, and shot them. The Army investigators who arrived 17 months later found that 450-500 people, mostly old men, women and children, had been murdered. My Lai is not an isolated incident; earlier this year former Senator Bob Kerrey revealed that he had been involved in a massacre of about 17 people in the village of Thanh Phong. Colonel Oran Henderson, investigator of the My Lai massacre, admitted, “Every unit of brigade size has its My Lai hidden someplace.”
  • During the Gulf War, Arab-Americans experienced intense hostility and outright hate crimes. Mosques, Islamic community centers, and Arab Anti-Discrimination Leagues received bomb threats while businesses were vandalized and Arab Americans were threatened.
  • The United States has continued to bomb Iraq regularly in the ten years since the Gulf War, this year averaging three air strikes per month. Many of these attacks kill people. The US has been the most vociferous and powerful supporter of UN sanctions against Iraq that, according to the UN itself, have been responsible for over 500,000 child deaths from malnutrition and disease brought about by deteriorating infrastructure.

This history of atrocity, repression, and racism includes only acts committed in military actions that are popularly understood as ‘war’, and omits the myriad acts of mass violence and sponsorship of terrorism that have been more the norm than the exception in US military history. I could easily have cited war crimes committed against Native Americans, military aid supplied to known torturers and human rights violators, and assassination attempts – both failed and successful – against national leaders with whom we disagree. This history of brutality is but one reason why I stand against US military retaliation for the events of September 11. Millions stand with me. But we do not have the eye or ear of the media, which seems intent on presenting a picture of uniform compliance with Bush’s war agenda that further marginalizes dissent and depicts us as “un-American.”

As our country prepares for war, we will doubtless see attacks on those who respectfully disagree. How can we fight to defend our freedoms if we attack those who are different and censure those who evaluate, criticize, and speak? In place of a rhetoric of ‘patriotism’ and ‘unity’, I seek global justice for and solidarity with the victims, their loved ones, and oppressed people in our country and throughout the world who have been scarred by violence, whether committed by the hands of terrorists, soldiers, or politicians, bankers, and corporate executives. As I told my early-morning caller before she hung up, it is not disrespectful to evaluate and possibly dissent from the policies of our government; indeed, the exercise of democracy demands it.

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