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A War on Free Speech?

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A war on free speech?

Chris Hedges, the veteran New York Times war correspondent, was just warming to his subject in a commencement address at Rockford College in Illinois last Saturday when the catcalls and booing began. The ruckus got so loud that Rockford College President Paul Pribbenow took the microphone to remind the audience that "one of the wonders of a liberal arts college is its deeply held commitment to academic freedom and the decision to listen to each other's opinions."

But the moment Hedges resumed speaking, a woman shouted, "You've already ruined our graduation. Please don't ruin it any more."

Hedges continued gamely, only to have his microphone cut twice. He sped through the rest of the speech, finishing amid a chorus of boos, cheers, shouts and foghorn blasts.

In George W. Bush's America, where, to quote the president, "you are either with us or against us," dissent borders on treason, and Hedges had dared to take a stand against the war in Iraq - and all other ill-conceived wars - a position that the super patriots in the audience couldn't abide.

Hedges is no pacifist. He accepts the inevitability of war when all other means have failed and when the cause is just. In his forthcoming book, "What Every Person Should Know About War," he puts forth his credentials on the subject:

"I have been in ambushes on desolate dirt roads in Central America, in firefights in the marshes in southern Iraq between Shiite rebels and Iraqi soldiers, imprisoned in the Sudan, captured and held prisoner for a week by the Iraqi Republican Guard in Basra during the Shiite rebellion following the 1991Gulf War, strafed by MiG-21s in Bosnia, fired upon by Serb snipers, and pounded with over 1,000 heavy shells in a day in Sarajevo. I struggle with the demons all who have been to war must bear."

Rather than deliver a climb-every- mountain, ford-every-stream commencement address that would be forgotten before the diplomas were handed out, Hedges challenged the graduates to stop thinking of war as "a vast video arcade game."

"We no longer understand war," he said. "We no longer understand that it can all go horribly wrong. We no longer understand that war begins by calling for the annihilation of others but ends if we do not know when to make or maintain peace with self-annihilation. We flirt, given the potency of modern weapons, with our own destruction."

Hedges had the nerve to title his speech, "War and Empire," and to suggest that the war of liberation in Iraq had become a war of liberation by Ira qis from American occupation.

"War in the end is always about be trayal," Hedges said, "betrayal of the young by the old, of soldiers by politi cians and of idealists by cynics. Read Antigone, when the king imposes his will without listening to those he rules, or read Thucydides' history. Read how Ath ens' expanding empire saw it become a tyrant abroad and then a tyrant at home, how the tyranny the Athenian leadership imposed on others it finally imposed on itself. This, Thucydides wrote, is what doomed Athenian democracy. Athens destroyed itself. . . ."

Hedges was booed even as Phil Donahue, delivering the commencement address at North Carolina State University the same day, was heckled for saying, "Only Congress can declare war, and not just one man, the president."

Hedges and Donahue had broken the ground rules of patriotism laid down by Ari Fleischer, the president's press secretary, a week after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Fleischer reprimanded Bill Maher, host of ABC's "Politically Incorrect," for suggesting in his patently provocative way that the hijackers who carried out the suicide mission showed more courage than the U.S. military lobbing long-range cruise missiles.

Calling Maher's comment "a terrible thing to say," the president's spokesman warned, "There 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."

Watch what we say, indeed. Last week, the Department of Defense reintroduced a controversial initiative previously called the Total Information Awareness program under a new name: Terrorism Information Awareness.

In a report to Congress, the Pentagon said the original name "created in some minds the impression that TIA was a system to be used for developing dossiers on U.S. citizens. That is not DoD's intent in pursuing this program."

Ignoring Fleischer's warning, Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union, one of many critics of the domestic spying program, was quoted as saying, "They simply keep adding additional layers of sugar to the pill to somehow make it more palatable."

All together now:


Brazaitis, formerly a Plain Dealer senior editor, is a Washington columnist.

Contact Tom Brazaitis at:

[email protected], 202-638-1366

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