OCTOBER 1, 2001
Needed: A Patriotism of Dissent
-- Lloyd J. Averill
A patriotism of dissent has been one of the most vital ingredients of American political life throughout history. It has always been in the national interest to "speak truth to power," and never more so than in times of crisis. We are now entering an era in which the nurture of an active patriotism of dissent will be a most difficult, but most essential task. Patriotic dissent is required if we hope to achieve anything approaching rational and moral balance in American policy and behavior. It is essential for people of faith and good will, who seek to honor the prophetic traditions of all religions, to explore what we can say to predispose such an outcome.
We need each other because, clearly, the national mood and political momentum generated by the events of September eleventh will move massively against patriotic dissent. It is an admirable sign of national strength when some disaster brings Americans together, and that strength has been shown in small and large ways since those sad September days. Expressions of unity demonstrate an awareness of a common humanity amid our great diversity, a capacity to come together in grief and in resolve, and the presence of shared bonds that are present but sometimes go unnoticed.
Unity is not, however, acquiescence, especially in a national tradition that values dissent. We share a common heritage, but a part of that heritage is respect for diversity of commitments, for differences in outlook and aspiration. So we must be vigilant lest the celebration of a kind of spiritual unity be turned into an expectation of, or worse a demand for, political uniformity.
I have no idea who first characterized the events in New York, Washington, and western Pennsylvania as "war." The striking fact is that the characterization was taken up at once by the President and by his administrative apparatus, which made an immediate effort to persuade the American public that waging this new form of war would involve a long-term commitment. Prior to the day of crisis, the President's approval rating had sunk to nearly fifty percent. He and his administration had been in trouble, even among Congressional faithful, and had increasingly experienced political heavy weather among the public on a wide range of domestic and foreign issues. By late morning on September 11 there was an instant transformation. Suddenly, the wartime leader of a nation victimized by cowardly attack, the President reduced his response to crisis to a few simplisms (bin Laden "wanted dead or alive"), spoke them with obvious conviction to a public desperately seeking firm assurance, and soared to an unprecedented 82% approval.
What is the same, of course, is the man, George W. Bush, with all of his limitations of political outlook and vision, though now with a stronger sense of mission to see them realized. He is surrounded by the same advisors, many with a cold-war mentality, now given fresh range and new opportunity. There has been no transformation of the Bush program with respect to missile defense, education, the environment, patients' rights, taxes, or social security. Those issues are still what they were, with whatever strengths or defects they had before September 11, 2001. But with the radically altered political climate, they now face a strikingly altered prospect.
A patriotism of dissent is needed now on at least three levels. On the first level, we must say "no" to the President when he promises that America under his leadership will take action against the terrorist threat, "whatever the cost." We must dissent if the cost is an assault on essential civil rights, and especially if hasty legislative action seeks to subvert due process, invade essential privacies, detain without formal charge or adequate representation, and utilize secret evidence. Conveniences are expendable; essential rights are not. A reduction in the freedoms that are the essence of the American experiment, and are anathema to our adversaries, can never be in the interest of national security.
On a second level, we must be prepared to say "no" to still-troubling aspects of the Bush administration's foreign policy. We must be prepared to say "no" to any use of overt military force, or covert action, that destroys innocent civilians. To call such consequences "collateral damage" dehumanizes its victims and ourselves, reducing or eliminating differences between us and our terrorist adversaries. We must dissent from an American arrogance in foreign affairs that seemed to be the style of the young Bush administration, and that may become even more marked post-September 11. And we must say "no" to the President, in the Congress and in public forums, on a wide range of policy issues domestic and international that possess no greater virtue or validity now than they did prior to September 11. Wartime leadership should not immunize the President against organized and principled political opposition. I consider national missile defense to be among these.
On a third, pressing more fundamental, more life-affirming level, we must dissent from murder. Out of his experience with violence in the French Resistance, and the later terrorism in his native Algeria, Albert Camus wrote:[A]ll I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice. After that, we can distinguish those who accept the consequences of being murderers themselves or the accomplices of murderers, and those who refuse to do so with all the force of their being. Since this terrible dividing line does actually exist, it will be a gain if it be clearly marked. Over the expanse of five continents through the coming years an endless struggle is going to be pursued between violence and friendly persuasion, a struggle in which, granted, the former has a thousand times the chances of success than that of the latter. But I have always held that, if he who bases his hopes on human nature is a fool, he who gives up in the face of circumstance is a coward. And henceforth, the only honorable course will be to stake everything on a formidable gamble: that words are more powerful than munitions. ["Neither Victims nor Executioners," Continuum, 1980]
As individuals and as a nation, in the post-September 11 world, we will be facing some agonizingly difficult decisions. There is danger that, given their difficulty, we may permit others to make them for us. If this occurs, we may discover, too late, that we have sided with the murderers.
-- Lloyd Averill is a professor emeritus from the University of Washington. He now makes his home in Kalamazoo, Michigan.