This is not the time.
Over and over we've been hearing this phrase in recent weeks. It's not the time for Democrats in Congress to question President Bush. Not the time to make jokes, however dark, however grimly fitting. Not the time for any of us to appear doubtful about the course that our president has set us on since that recent, long-ago day when a handful of men armed with box cutters and motivations we'll never understand executed a plan almost sublime in its brutality and changed the world.
Not the time. Some use exactly those words. Like when Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer reacted to comments from comedian Bill Maher about America's cowardice in "lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away," by saying: "It's a terrible thing to say and it's unfortunate. There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not the time for remarks like that; there never is."
With those few words, Fleischer seemed to extend President Bush's challenge to the nations of the world -- "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists" -- to Americans as well. And as of press time, his only attempt to modify his statement had been to claim he was speaking only of Maher and a particular member of Congress.
Others, however, don't bother to disguise as admonishments their contempt for different views, but rather skip right ahead to the threats. Often, these are threats of violence, sometimes veiled, sometimes not. Predictions of the death of irony were premature, it seems; chief among the freedoms for which our enemies supposedly hate us is our freedom to express ourselves -- in art, in music, in politics, but most or all, in the written and spoken word. And it is in the name of protecting these freedoms that many among us would like others to shut up. They seem shockingly oblivious to the fact that censorship is supposed to be anathema to us. As writer Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. put it in 1860: "The very aim and end of our institutions is just this: that we may think what we like and say what we think."
But now is not the time.
And sadly, not all of those who seek to stifle dissent are partisan political operatives or the armchair philosophers who have made talk radio so successful. Some of them work within or have influence over the news and entertainment media, meaning they play a role in what the rest of us read, see and hear. And in their patriotic zeal, or their fear of those gripped by patriotic zeal, they are censoring themselves. Even "Saturday Night Live" has gone all gushy, promising to avoid humor that, as producer Lorne Michaels put it, "is in any way disrespectful" to Bush, who before Sept. 11 was routinely portrayed as a squinting, adolescent buffoon. Presidenting just got a whole lot easier, because now is not the time.
But we're in this for the long haul, right? So, if not now, when?
In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there has been a growing intolerance for expressions of dissent over the latest additions to American dogma: that terrorists associated with Saudi exile Osama bin Laden were responsible for the attacks; that said attacks were utterly unprovoked; and that the best way -- the only way -- to respond is to visit grievous bodily harm upon those people, regardless of the cost in dollars and innocent lives.
If this were an election, we could report that the votes are tallied, the final precincts have reported and the results are in: Free speech lost.
California Congresswoman Barbara Lee was the lone "nay" vote on Sept. 14 when Congress authorized the use of military force in response to the terrorist attacks. For voting her pacifist conscience, Lee has been vilified and excoriated in the court of public opinion. Lee's press secretary, Andrew Sousa, says that his boss has received 45,000 e-mails and faxes, most of them negative.
"In the first days following the vote, the calls and e-mails were very angry and passionate," Sousa says, "and, yes, there were threats and horrible, horrible things said. I should also say that now there are more calls and e-mails coming in from people who may disagree but respect Congresswoman Lee's vote as one of conscience. But more people are urging restraint now than there were two weeks ago."
In defending her vote against the use of force, Lee writes, "I could not support such a grant of war-making authority to the president; I believe it would put more innocent lives at risk. I do not dispute the president's intent to rid the world of terrorism but measures that spawn further acts of terror or that do not address the sources of hatred do not increase our security."
Sousa, for his part, sees more danger in the tone of the correspondence his office has received than in his boss setting herself up as the sole voice of dissent. "Dissent, debate and discourse are the basis of our democracy, and it's ironic that while Americans rally 'round the flag to protect our way of life, we also happily trample on the tenets that way of life was based on," Sousa says. "Nothing is more fundamental to our democracy than the First Amendment, and that means listening and giving due respect to opinions that may be unpopular at the moment."
Tell that to Les Daughtry Jr., editor and publisher of the Texas City Sun. Daughtry commandeered a portion of his paper's front page on Sept. 23 to apologize for a column, penned by city editor Tom Gutting, that had sharply criticized Bush for taking so long to return to Washing-ton on Sept. 11.
And in a rebuttal titled "Bush's leadership has been superb," Daughtry called his city editor's words "offensive," "outrageous" and "so absurd that they don't even merit a response." He ended the fawning rebuttal with "May God bless President George W. Bush and other leaders, and God bless America."
Reached at his office for comment, Daughtry admits that the paper was inundated with negative phone calls, faxes and e-mails immediately after Gutting's piece ran, but says he was moved to write a rebuttal because he was personally offended by the column. "I'm a supporter of the First Amendment, and I think reporters and editors have the obligation to be voices of dissent at times, but this was beyond the pale." Daughtry won't explain why Gutting was fired.
In Grants Pass, Ore., the Daily Courier fired columnist and copy editor Dan Guthrie for writing that, after the attacks, Bush "skedaddled" and that, against the courage of the passengers who allegedly thwarted the fourth hijacking by ditching the plane in western Pennsylvania, "the picture of Bush hiding in a Nebraska hole becomes an embarrassment." The Daily Courier ran an apology to its readers the next day and handed Guthrie his walking papers.
Philadelphia Daily News editor Zack Stalberg was alarmed when he heard that journalists were being fired for being critical of the president, and he vowed that no such action would ever be taken against a writer at his paper. "I'm just appalled that people are being fired for being the voices of dissent," Stalberg says. "But there really is a newfound sensitivity out there for George Bush in the wake of the attacks, and a tendency to see any criticism as a personal attack on the symbol of our country. ... It's as though in times of crisis the president can do no wrong, which is bullshit. Public figures need to be called on the carpet when they're wrong, and it's our job to be the thorn in the side of politicians and point out the flaws in the political process."
David Rolland was carrying on this tradition when he wrote an editorial titled "The politics of fear and anger" for the alternative newsweekly he edits, the Ventura County Reporter, in California. Rolland accused Bush of manipulating the nation's fear and suggested that the president had "dangerously oversimplified a very complicated situation" by casting the U.S. as the good guy in a war on "evil."
The first reader to call initially sounded friendly, but then claimed to have lost two people close to him in the attacks. According to Rolland, "Then he said, 'Watch your back walking to and from work.'" An employee took the call, so it wasn't clear whether the threat was intended for Rolland or for everyone at the Reporter.
Another caller asked if Rolland were still alive. Informed that he was, the caller said, "He shouldn't be."
"It kind of left me a little weak in the knees," Rolland admits. His first concern, he says, was for the other employees. Later, his girlfriend pointed out that he, too, could be in danger. "It even made me second-guess what I had said -- a little bit, momentarily," he adds. But after rereading the editorial, he decided it was valid, and he was glad he'd written it.
"The publisher asked if this was a battle I really wanted to fight," Rolland says. (Ventura County is "a fairly conservative place," he notes). "I said, 'This is definitely a battle I want to fight.'"
The complaints and vague threats of violence, he says, came from a few people "who are angry. Very patriotic and very angry."
In Orlando, that form of vitriolic patriotism reared its ugly head Sunday, Oct. 6. The Orlando Coalition for Alternatives to War had just wrapped up its candlelight vigil, and the 20 anti-war activists were marching from Heritage Square back to the Stone Soup Collective when three drunk Wall Street Cantina patrons jumped the railing and began punching and shoving the startled pacifists.
The worst part, says activist Kathy DiBernardo: A cop just 20 feet from the marchers looked the other way.
Though perhaps the most serious encounter, the scuffle isn't the only harassment the activists have seen. When they've gone to Orange Avenue on Saturday nights to hand out fliers, they have been met with obscenities and the occasional flashed buttocks out of car windows.
DiBernardo has been called a "terrorist" and told to "go back to Afghanistan."
When the Orlando Sentinel profiled DiBernardo's work, a letter to the editor labeled her an "unpatriotic traitor."
"I feel like I could lose my job," says another activist who attended a recent coalition meeting. She's a temp worker in a politically connected downtown law firm and she asked to remain anonymous. If her bosses found out that she was involved in protests, she'd likely be let go, she says.
"There are people angry with someone like me," says fellow protester Marie Falbo. "`They believe that` just by saying you're against the bombing, you're helping the enemy, `that` if you keep quiet, we'll get this over with quickly. If you're anti-war, you're not going to be popular." Says Steve, a Quaker with a short ponytail, "I don't know who pitched a brick through my window." But he's pretty sure he knows why.
Because the polls show such overwhelming support for Bush's military campaign, the activists report a sense of isolation. Now, more than ever, it's uncool to be a war protester.
Congress already has rammed through a sweeping anti-terrorism package which grants law-enforcement officials wide latitude in wiretapping phone lines and detaining immigrants without cause. Bush signed the so-called Patriot Act with much fanfare and little public opposition on Oct. 26. After all, the follow-the-herd mentality has it that, if you're not breaking the law, you've got nothing to worry about.
But the law could do more than open the door to widescale racial profiling (which, as some polls suggest, most
Americans support when it comes to Arab Americans). It could, some suggest, allow the government to monitor groups pushing any message the powers-that-be don't like.
"There is no doubt that the breadth of this legislation permits exactly that -- the FBI keeping massive files on American citizens for engaging in political discussion," says Randall Marshall, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
Bush's newly created Office of Homeland Security, designed to work with different government agencies to prevent another attack, is becoming in vogue in much smaller jurisdictions. "Pretty soon," Moses Ector, homeland security director for DeKalb County, Ga. (pop. 665,000), told The New York Times, "everyplace will have one."
Mayor Glenda Hood quickly created Orlando's Task Force for Weapons of Mass Destruction and Anti-Terrorism, a three-member group tapped to revise the city's terrorism plans, which were first designed to accommodate World Cup Soccer in 1994. The task force is to come up with what a city spokeswoman calls the "ongoing assessment of threat." Moreover, it will make recommendations to increase preparedness and "train and equip" city personnel to ward off terrorist attacks.
The mayor is also the chair of Gov. Jeb Bush's Security Advisory Panel, an 11-member board that will do much the same thing on a state level.
Under the auspices of protecting at-risk water and power plants, the Florida Senate took aim at the state's open-government laws in its special session, voting (by an unrecorded voice vote) for rule changes that allow the Senate president to declare meetings secret and to keep the records from those secret meetings sealed. Some senators claimed that companies wouldn't bid for security-related contracts simply because the details of their plans would become public information -- data you, I, or any terrorist could access.
In lieu of the state's $1 billion budget crunch, the House shelved most of the more sweeping rule changes until at least the regular legislative session, which begins in January. It did, however, pass a public-records exemption for the Florida Depart-ment of Law Enforcement.
"I don't get it," says an exasperated Barbara Peterson of the First Amend-ment Founda-tion, who has been tracking the new legislation. "I don't think this `kind of` rule change was necessary, and it goes much further than terrorists. ... It's 'Trust us.' There is no opportunity for public oversight."
While lawmakers have been debating access to public records, threats and fear have kept many Arab Americans (or Americans who look Arab) from going about their lives. On Sept. 11, threatening phone calls shut down Orlando's two Muslim schools. And all across the country, Muslim groups have reported assaults and harassment.
An annual Muslim Cultural Festival planned for Lake Eola last weekend was abruptly canceled, though organizers say it wasn't because of any backlash. Rather, they decided that the event, which features shows and dancing, didn't jibe with the country's somber mood.
In more than 30 reported instances nationwide, pilots have refused to fly until Arab-looking passengers were booted from the flights, including two Pakistani businessmen removed from an Orlando flight on Sept. 17. The company chairman of U.S. Airways later sent a memo instructing employees to "respect ... our Muslim, Arab American and Middle Eastern co-workers and customers."
Legally, pilots can remove any passenger who makes either the crew or other passengers un-easy, but Muslim groups contend that the airlines have descended into unadulterated racial profiling. "It's a lawsuit waiting to happen," Marshall says, adding that the airlines had to pay up after similar cases during the Gulf War.
The problem of sensitivity hit home last week at Seminole Community College. Lisa Stokes, a professor who recently co-authored a book on Hong Kong cinema, had a flier on her wall depicting a scene from John Woo's 1989 film "The Killer" that featured Chow Yun-Fat in a classic, guns-pointed standoff with Danny Lee.
The flier was for a presentation she had made at a local bookstore last summer, before the Florida Film Festival. A new faculty member, however, recently ripped it off Stokes' wall. He left her a note reading, "In light of the events of Sept. 11, I'm very offended by this."
Stokes would not name the professor, though she added that he had lost friends in the terrorism attacks. Still, she says, it's scary that college campuses -- which should encourage academic freedom -- may cave in to the "overly sensitive."
In this uncertain time, should sensitivity be paramount? Congressional Democrats have, in the name of bipartisanship, all but acquiesced to the wishes of Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft. Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, who chastised Rudy Guliani's refusal of a $10 million donation from a Saudi Arabian prince, was declared an anti-Semite by the Anti-Defamation League. (The prince, who condemned the attacks, said America should examine some of the root causes of the tragedy.)
Michael Italie, a Socialist running for Miami mayor, was fired from his job at Goodwill after circulating leaflets critical of the Afghanistan bombings. "We cannot have anyone who is attempting to subvert the United States," Goodwill CEO Dennis Pastrana told the Miami Herald.
Despite such attitudes, American unity does not mean looking together in the same direction; it means looking together in all directions, because none of us knows for sure where we're headed, or from whence the next threat will come.