Speak No Evil

The government can be expected to clam up in times of war -- but why are citizens muzzling themselves?

| Thu Oct. 4, 2001 3:00 AM EDT

Anyone who remembers the Gulf War won't be surprised to hear that as it undertakes the "war on terrorism," the US government plans to freeze out the press to an extent never before seen -- worse even than during Operation Desert Storm, when the media were bottle-fed news of smart bombs and surgical strikes that turned out to be less than accurate. Already, the State Department has "persuaded" the Voice of America to kill an interview with a prominent Taliban leader. And Pentagon officials have announced that they are prepared to lie to the press about developments in Operation Enduring Freedom.

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We know to expect these kinds of efforts from a government at war. Even the White House's dressing down of a television personality shouldn't shock us -- anybody remember Murphy Brown and Dan Quayle?

Far more surprising than government attempts to stifle criticism is the seeming willingness of the media, politicians, and activist groups -- particularly those on the left -- to censor themselves. Some may be backing off to avoid the kind of public crucifixion endured by "Politically Incorrect"'s Bill Maher. Others, however, apparently truly believe that frank and vibrant public discourse is damaging to the country's moral fiber.

That was essentially the rationale behind the decision by a huge consortium of news organizations -- including the New York Times and the Washington Post -- to hold off on publishing the results of a recount of disputed votes in last year's presidential election. According to some of those familiar with the ballot project, one reason for the delay was the "queasy sense that now is not the right time to publish information that could well question the legitimacy of the nation's commander in chief."

But if ever there's a time to critically examine the legitimacy and ability of a leader, it's when he is leading the nation into an open-ended war and asking citizens to "make certain sacrifices," including some of our freedoms. Like a muscle, free speech has to be exercised, or it weakens.

Some instances of self-censorship are more egregious than others. Among the more trivial, but nonetheless disturbing cases was the decision by Bushorchimp.com to suspend its posting of images of the president side-by-side with pictures of various primates. The joke was broad, simple, and only moderately funny. Most importantly, it was harmless. The idea that the world's only superpower cannot afford a handful of citizens who derive joy from childishly comparing their leader to a monkey is not funny at all.

Perhaps Bushorchimp's disappearance was simply a case of a webmaster erring on the side of good taste (or failing to mention that the site had been kicked off its server for using too much bandwidth). And indications are that the nation's sense of humor may be recovering.

Still, it's hard not to wonder what was behind "Saturday Night Live"'s choice to eliminate any teasing of Bush in the show's Sept. 29 season opener: Did the show's producers fear the fate of "Politically Incorrect," which lost key sponsors in the wake of Maher's comments? That's what's known as a chilling effect.

Even more ominous than the silence of the satirists was the decision by both the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to pull ad campaigns criticizing President George W. Bush's environmental policies. Bush's policies haven't changed -- and they still need some serious criticizing -- but both organizations said the atmosphere wasn't right to bring up such issues.

That would be understandable, if the reasoning were that America simply wasn't interested in thinking about anything other than the fresh tragedy. But an NRDC spokesman said the decision was made because "We want to show our support for the administration. This was a heinous act and it's unseemly for anyone to try to exploit this tragedy by pushing a pre-existing agenda." It's hard to understand how an ad campaign criticizing the president's stand on arsenic in drinking water could be seen as exploitation of the terrorist tragedy. The Sierra Club even went so far as to purge its Web site of comments critical of Bush made before Sept. 11.

Similarly, the Anti-Giuliani Message Board, dedicated to venting about the iron-handed leadership style of New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, was taken down just after the attacks, and replaced with a message offering the webmaster's "unqualified support" for the mayor. Even if most of us agree that Giuliani has done a remarkable job bringing his city together in the wake of the disaster, is it healthy to suspend examination of his record? Especially at a time when he is seeking an extension of his term?

Dissent, "a treasured American virtue" as one pompous anchorman aptly put it recently, is more than a privilege and a right; it's a responsibility. By abdicating our responsibility to voice opposition, we invite the erosion of the very value system we claim to be protecting.

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