Hart Murmurs: Gagging dissent wrong reaction

Since Sept. 11, a debate has been raging over the limits of political criticism in a time of crisis. Bill Maher, host of television’s “Politically Incorrect,” commented Sept. 17 that President George W. Bush’s labeling of the terrorists as “cowards” was inaccurate because they were willing to die for their cause. He also said the U.S. had been cowardly in its past lack of commitment to fighting terrorism in the Middle East.

The statement caused 15 ABC affiliates to cancel the show, although most have since restored it. ABC considered nixing it permanently, and the White House spoke out against Maher’s comments. Maher’s gaffe is representative of how looking at two sides of an issue has suddenly become taboo in the eyes of some of our leaders.

We have seen this before. During the Red Scare of the 1950s led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, anyone who dared not to equate Communism with evil was suspect. During the Vietnam War, of course, the government’s rationale split the country in two, with Communism still at the forefront. The government and media portrayed college students as anti-American insurgents, and Walter Cronkite wondered on television in 1968 whether America was making progress in Vietnam to galvanize the undecided.

Throughout history, leaders have tried to oversimplify conflicts to the point where they become matters of good versus evil, eliminating any middle ground or room for reason. Bush’s rhetoric, which has the folksy flavor of old cowboy movies, is no different. But the current state of affairs in America and abroad is far from simple.

How the United States goes about searching for terrorists in Afghanistan is the question now. Afghanistan has already resisted invasions by two former superpowers, Britain and the Soviet Union, in the past. Can we avoid a similar fate, and do we really know what we are doing?

These are valid questions, and nobody asking them should be shouted down in the name of patriotism. Bill Maher is not un-American. Someone rallying behind the government without thinking is a greater danger than someone questioning authority on a talk show.

Some have begun to question the effectiveness of the current campaign. The bombing has continued for more than a month, yet aside from disabling Taliban weapons and communication, nothing tangible has been accomplished. Government officials admit the Taliban is a more tenacious foe than expected. What is the objective? Are we accomplishing that objective? Is the government telling us the whole truth or trying to put a positive spin on everything?

Bush and his advisers are in an unenviable situation. They must navigate a complex maze of military options with significant diplomatic ties at stake. Yet even in the midst of a war, people should be allowed to voice their opinions without the fear of a modern day witch-hunt. Free, open discussion is more American than easy unanimity.

–The writer is a sophomore majoring in history.

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