Commentary: Voices carry

By PETER ROFF, UPI National Political Analyst  |  Jan. 11, 2002 at 11:39 AM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 10 (UPI) -- It is four months since sneak terrorist attacks on New York and Washington caused the deaths of close to 3,000 people. It was a stunning blow to the national psyche, perpetrated by terrorists who hate America and all that it stands for.

Since then, the U.S.-led war against terrorism has been conducted with stunning efficiency. In its first military engagement, the Taliban was driven from power in Afghanistan in short order. A worldwide manhunt is on for Osama bin Laden, leader of the al Qaida terrorist organization, who may already be dead. A coalition government is in place in Afghanistan, auguring a brighter future for that war-ravaged country.

On the home front, life continues. Airline travelers have been inconvenienced by new travel restrictions but freedom of mobility has not been severely curtailed.

Arab-Americans have generally not fallen victim to vengeance-seeking mobs. Many, including President George W. Bush, have taken great care to reinforce the idea that Arab-Americans are welcome in this country. This in stark contrast to the treatment of German-Americans during World War I and the imprisonment and exploitation of the Japanese-American Nisei after Pearl Harbor.

As conservative Washington Times columnist Tod Lindberg writes, the political process has continued pretty much apace. The political leadership in Washington is united in the prosecution of the war even while deeply divided over domestic policy. Few in the public arena mistake dissent for disloyalty no matter how hot the rhetoric gets.

The private sphere is another matter.

In the downcast days immediately after the terror attack, Americans of all political stripes rushed forward, declaring their love of country and their support for -- in essence -- revenge.

There were a few, primarily on the left like Katia Pollitt and Susan Sontag, who made statements that were ridiculed for their dripping anti-Americanism. Already marginal figures, their comments only further marginalized them.

There are others, however, who are not marginal figures. The response to their comments in the push towards cultural solidarity should caution anyone who is protective of general civil liberties.

A piece by Eric Taub in the December issue of Talk Magazine chronicling the experience of Bill Maher, host of ABC's Politically Incorrect, makes the point quite well.

Maher is a significant figure, with a nightly audience of close to 3 million people. On his first program after the attack, the notion that the terrorists were "cowards" was raised.

Maher disagreed with the characterization saying, "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building -- say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."

On a show that is intended to be controversial and outrageous, such comments usually pass unnoticed. It is ambiguous. Maher's post-show contention that the "We" referred to American political leaders like Bill Clinton and not the U.S. military is certainly plausible.

Unfortunately for Maher, a talk show host in Houston named Dan Patrick didn't see it that way.

Patrick, also the general manager of KSEV-AM, started a campaign to have Maher's show taken off the air.

The radio host encouraged listeners to contact Politically Incorrect's sponsors and ask them to pull their ads from the show. Even though, Patrick tells Taub, he has concerns about putting pressure on advertisers, "I thought this was important enough to do that... Bill Maher said things that were offensive and I wanted him off the air."

Patrick's repeated intention to get Maher "off the air" is chilling.

There are no doubt many people in the Houston area who disagree with Patrick's pronouncements on his radio. He acknowledges as much in promotional material that says, "Whether you agree with him or not, Dan Patrick will definitely make you stop, think and listen."

Thinking is one thing that Patrick may have forgotten how to do.

One can only imagine his reaction if he were subjected to the same torrent of abuse and threats to his livelihood for expressing his opinions that he caused Maher to experience. It is probably not inaccurate to suggest that Patrick would scream about the "First Amendment" from the highest rooftops in Houston.

The right to free expression is an essential underpinning of American society. Even the suggestion from official quarters that a public pronouncement is suspect raises hackles and when presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer did just that, the offending statement appeared edited in the briefing transcript.

In early December, presidential media advisor Mark McKinnon acknowledged as much, saying the remarks was "pretty Big Brotherish."

America is a great nation full of good people who do amazing things, in part because of the protections guaranteed us in the Constitution. Dissent is a healthy part of the political process. It would do Patrick and his ilk, as well as the rest of us, good to remember that.

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