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Speaking out
Attempts to squelch dissent from the war in Iraq cheapen public debate

SINCE THE US began bombing Iraq last Wednesday, the media, the public, and the business community have become sensitive to how dissent from the war campaign will be perceived. Too sensitive, in our view.

On Sunday, it was reported that an Army maintenance crew, traveling behind an armed convoy, had been ambushed by Iraqi soldiers. About a dozen US troops were either killed or captured. Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arab news channel, broadcast footage of the dead soldiers. The Iraqi news network broadcast additional footage of interrogations during which the surviving prisoners were asked such questions as why they were in Iraq.

Networks initially refused to broadcast the footage, though anchors and other correspondents who had seen the video described it in some detail. By Tuesday, the networks were broadcasting snippets of the interviews with captured soldiers. But no one was showing footage of the dead servicemen (although Matt Drudge published stills from the video on the Drudge Report), which had already been seen by millions around the world via Al-Jazeera (including, it should be noted, some in the US who can get the news channel with a satellite dish).

On Sunday, the alternative news Web site, which had captured still images of the dead American soldiers and Iraqi bombing victims from the Al-Jazeera Web site, posted them online. On Monday, the Web siteís hosting company, Vortech Hosting, shut the site down. In an e-mail to YellowTimes, Vortech explained: "We understand free press and all but we donít want someoneís family member to see them on some site. It is disrespectful, tacky & disgusting. No mother, brother, sister, wife or child should see their love one plastered all over the Net wounded or dead."

To be sure, Vortech was well within its rights, as a private company, to censure the YellowTimes site. In fact, Vortech enjoys the same legal status as the managers of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, who also acted within their rights when they refused to allow the antiwar group Not in Our Name to set up a table to distribute flyers and leaflets at an Ani DiFranco concert. (DiFranco invited Miles Solay, a representative of Not in Our Name, on stage to address the audience, which he did. Making the most of the opportunity, he threw leaflets into the crowd.) And thereís no question that movie producer Steven Bing had every right to block Sean Penn ó who made headlines and drew criticism when he visited Iraq in December and subsequently expressed his opposition to war with that country ó from getting a promised role in the movie Why Men Shouldnít Marry. (Penn has filed suit in Los Angeles seeking $10 million in damages, the amount he says he will lose by not getting the role.) Sony Music had every right to pressure Dixie Chick Natalie Maines to back down from critical comments she made about the president during a London concert appearance. CBS and ABC had every right to pressure musicians at the Grammy and actors at the Academy Awards ceremonies not to speak out against the war. NBC executives can make known their displeasure with Martin Sheen, star of The West Wing, for his public antiwar stance.

Itís less certain whether the Jones Media Networks had the authority to fire music-video producer Tamara Saviano. From her private e-mail account on her home computer, Saviano sent an e-mail to her friends, some of whom work in the music business, vehemently disagreeing with country musician Charlie Danielsís "open letter" to Hollywood celebrities denouncing the antiwar stances taken by actors like Penn. "America is in imminent danger," Daniels wrote. "Youíre either for her or against her. There is no middle ground." Jones Media Networks defended its decision to fire Saviano because her expression of political views could be misconstrued as being the opinion of Jones Media. Saviano maintains that she can engage in whatever expressions of free speech she deems fit during her off-work hours.

Itís also less certain whether owners of the Crossgates Mall, in New York, were acting within their rights on March 3 when they had mall security guards ask two shoppers wearing T-shirts with the slogans PEACE ON EARTH and GIVE PEACE A CHANCE to remove them or leave the premises. (One did, the other didnít. He was arrested and charged with trespassing, though the charges were eventually dropped by mall owners.)

Whether itís legal or not, where does this squelching of dissent get us? Not very far. It creates a climate that stifles much-needed public debate and expression. That said, in free-speech terms, we seem to have come a long way from how public dissenters were treated during past wars. During World War I, A. Mitchell Palmer, President Woodrow Wilsonís attorney general, raided the offices of leftist antiwar organizations, and workersí-rights activist Eugene Debs was jailed for delivering an antiwar speech. During the 1950s era of the Cold War, Senator Joseph McCarthy conducted extensive anti-Communist witch hunts.

But itís dangerous nonetheless and sets us on a backward course. Expressing dissent during times of war is not unpatriotic. Nor is it unsupportive of the troops in battle. All of which brings us back to the video footage of those US POWs in Nasariyah. The networksí decision not to air it smacks alternately of paternalism and self-censorship. Why should the American public be shielded from images that much of the rest of the world has been able to see? This is what war looks like. Itís heart-wrenching. Itís ugly. Itís stomach-turning. And when war is being waged in your name, you have a right to know whatís going on.

Itís impossible at this point not to note the cruel irony of how rare acts of public ó and even private ó dissent are handled by Saddam Hussein in Iraq: the offending citizen is lashed to a pole in a public place, his tongue is cut off, and heís left to bleed to death. Weíll be decried as hypocrites for not supporting a war that "liberates" Iraqi citizens from this sort of treatment. But we will reject those charges just as quickly as they come: war is not the only means by which peace and liberation can be achieved. This is what dissenters from the war in Iraq are talking about. They have every right to say so. We have every right to show the face of war the networks opted not to air. And you have every right to listen or not. This isnít Iraq.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters[a]

Issue Date: March 27 - April 3, 2003
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