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Silencing Dissent

Guest Column
Gregory D. Dennis

In his Address to Congress on September 20th, President Bush fervidly threatened the nations of the world with this memorable admonition: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” I could not help but think his threat was directed, not only at foreign leaders, but at me as well. Is it true that if I disagreed with his actions, I would be no better than the terrorists themselves; that I would be, dare I say ... “un-American?”

Maybe New York City Mayor Rudolf Guiliani could shed some light on the answer. In a speech to the United Nations, Guiliani echoed Bush’s comment. “You’re either with civilization or you’re with terrorism,” he stated.” We’re right and they’re wrong. It’s as simple as that.” Are Bush and Guiliani correct? Do we live in a two-dimensional world of good guys and bad guys, terrorists and non-terrorists?

Are you familiar with the logical fallacy known as “bifurcation?” One commits bifurcation when he or she presents a situation as having only two alternatives, when in fact others may exist. It is the same fallacy at work in Bush’s “with us or with the terrorists” remark. If his statement were correct, it would mean one could not be against both U.S. foreign policy and the terrorists at the same time.The problem with this logic is that millions of people around the world, including the millions of peace protesters around the world, do stand opposed to both. Their mere existence reveals the fallacy in the “with us or with the terrorists” logic.

Bush’s goal in ignoring these glaring counterexamples to his logic is not hard to deduce. By splitting the world into two camps, the good guys who agree with U.S. foreign policy, and the bad guys who do not, the Bush administration hopes to lump all the dissidents in with the terrorists. In doing so, they intend to ostracize those who voice opposition to the United States and thereby engineer a silent obedience amongst the public. And it has proven effective. Fewer people will risk dissension when it could mean being labeled a terrorist supporter.

Of course, the dissenters aren’t always labeled “terrorists.” Sometimes they hear the word “traitorous,” as well. But the most common epithet is the ever-popular “un-American.” The word “un-American” is consistently used as a blanket term to criticize anyone who disagrees with United States policy. This blanket is used to smother opposition and conduct a witch-hunt against those who dissent. If “Americanism” is supposed to refer to anything, I thought it was to the values of freedom and democracy. On the contrary, the word itself is being used to crush dissent and to promote an unquestioning support of authority and an obscenely blind nationalism; all the ideas so antithetical to freedom and democracy are the values “Americanism” is purported to represent in the first place.

In the hands of the right-wing jingoists, this word “Americanism” is a dangerous weapon. It is a weapon they use to blind people from the faults of their own country. Could the horrendous terrorists acts that occurred on September 11th be a response to years and years of misguided foreign policy towards the Middle East? What about the 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five who have died from malnutrition or lack of medical attention, as UNICEF estimates, since the U.S.-supported Iraqi sanctions were imposed following the Gulf War? Could it have had anything to do with the U.S.’s economic and military support of Israel, who maintains a brutal military occupation of Palestinian land? Not according to the warmongers. Their explanation for why the terrorists committed these horrible atrocities is no more complicated than “they’re the bad guys, that’s why.” Unfortunately, this black-and-white, good-guy-bad-guy explanation seems better suited for a Jerry Bruckheimer action flick than it is for American foreign policy.

My argument is not that the war advocates are failing to engage the public in a discussion of U.S. foreign policy, but that they are actively working to prevent such a dialogue. They are doing so by illogically dividing people into the assenting American anti-terrorists on one side, and the dissenting un-American pro-terrorists on the other. They thereby hope to categorize anyone who disagrees with the U.S. as un-American and pro-terrorist. These are clear tactical measures designed to keep the American public from any serious debate of the issues at hand.

On his September 17th show, “Politically Incorrect” host Bill Maher dared to violate the rule of non-debate. In a comment to one of his guests, Maher noted, “We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly.” When asked about the comment, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer responded, “It’s a terrible thing to say, and it’s unfortunate. These are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.” Beware America, watch what you say, watch what you do, and please bid farewell to your civil liberties. Bill Maher criticized U.S. foreign policy, and he was chastised for it, because according to Ari Fleischer, “There never is” a time for such criticism. In translation: “Be American: Keep your mouth shut.”

In essence, the term “Americanism” is a tool to keep people in line. The powers-that-be have made a decision; if you agree with it, you are “with us” and are “American.” And if you disagree, you are “with the terrorists” and are “un-American.” But labeling someone “un-American” is simply not an argument unto itself. Far from constituting any cogent line of reasoning, the word “un-American” is at best a cowardly retort employed by those incapable of debating a dissenter on the merits of his or her argument.

I now invite the reader to revisit the justification for this so-called “war on terrorism.” We’re told that we are going to war to defend freedom and democracy. However, we’re also told that anyone who exercises their freedom of speech to voice opposition to such a war should shut their mouth. This is why I have at least some reason to remain optimistic. The logic behind this “war” is so flawed, and the justification so weak, it seems bound to collapse under the weight of its own hypocrisy.

Gregory D. Dennis is a member of the Class of 2002.