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Sshhhh, someone may hear you exercising free speech

Before our conversation ended, the man told me of other public officials who also are fearful of speaking out. "You have to be careful what you say in public these days," he added.

I instinctively looked around to see if anyone was hiding in the gathering twilight. For a moment, I felt like I was in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Never did I think I would live to see the day when an honest man was afraid to speak his mind on political issues in America.
Sshhhh, someone may hear you exercising free speech

Is free speech the latest casualty of the war in Iraq?

Date published: 8/3/2003


THESE ARE troubling times for Americans who cherish their freedom.

A few days ago, a public official called me over to his car to discuss his displeasure with the war in Iraq and the way the Bush administration is handling the nation's economy. This well-respected man would talk only from his vehicle, saying he was fearful of criticizing the president or his policies in public.

Before our conversation ended, the man told me of other public officials who also are fearful of speaking out. "You have to be careful what you say in public these days," he added.

I instinctively looked around to see if anyone was hiding in the gathering twilight. For a moment, I felt like I was in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Never did I think I would live to see the day when an honest man was afraid to speak his mind on political issues in America.

These days, it happens all the time. For the first time in my life, I see concerned Americans who are afraid to criticize Washington.

Almost daily, someone informs me that he is scared of openly expressing his views. Even those who do dare to speak out do so in hushed tones, fearful of what ears might overhear.

In the politically charged atmosphere that exists in America today, having the wrong person hear criticism of the government can lead to trouble.

That became evident recently when an entertainer who innocently joked that President Bush had "chicken legs" was banned from performing further at Borders Books and Music in Fredericksburg.

Again, this seems to be a story from behind the Iron Curtain. But it happened right here in Fredericksburg. We are past the point where we can even joke openly.

America is now living the AM radio talk-show mentality. Those who would give the government unlimited powers are having a field day, and they never fail to try and intimidate those who would argue that our rights are being stolen away.

Not since the Joseph McCarthy communist witch hunts of the early 1950s have Americans been so afraid of speaking out. Now, as in those troubling days, criticism of the government is viewed as anti-American.

During the preparation for and America's actual invasion of Iraq there were newspaper columnists who were fired because they dared write critical essays on the political situation. Others had columns censored by editors. Even the press is not immune to political pressure.

We try to tell ourselves that America is not heading where we think it is heading. Then we look at the front page of the July 24 Free Lance-Star and see a photo of a screaming U.S. soldier prepared to blow away an unarmed Iraqi civilian who allegedly tried to flee a battle zone.

This one single photo explains why the rest of the world hates us. This is the portrait of love we send to the people of other nations.

Two days later, government officials proudly display gruesome photos showing the dead bodies of two of Saddam Hussein's sons. It is a grisly scene right out of the Middle Ages, and I am amazed that the two men were not beheaded and their heads hung on posts in Baghdad to rot.

We suddenly begin to wonder whether we might be looking down the barrel of a government gun if we continue to question Washington's actions and policies. It could happen, as it has in hundreds of other countries over the course of history.

As the Iraqi people vent their anger against the American invasion and our soldiers become little more than targets, those in Washington play the blame game concerning the claims of weapons of mass destruction that abounded before the invasion.

If the military situation in Iraq is reminiscent of Vietnam, the shifting of responsibility for WMD claims reeks of Watergate. Everybody did it, nobody did it and if we keep shifting the blame everyone will get confused and the whole issue will go away. Where are Woodward and Bernstein when we need them?

In the middle of all this finger-pointing, former United Nations weapons inspector David Kelly, at the center of a WMD leak controversy, has turned up dead. Early reports say he was a victim of suicide, but no matter how he died, the British citizen is now silenced forever.

Iraq, it seems, is an unhealthy issue for everyone.

Meanwhile, the American economy remains in disarray, the jobless rate is at a 10-year high and consumer confidence, according to the last poll, is falling sharply.

A $334 billion federal government surplus that was forecast two years ago has turned into a $455 billion deficit. That doesn't even take into account the money we will spend doing whatever it is we are now doing in Iraq.

At least we are still allowed to talk about the economy in public. Perhaps Washington feels that if our minds are on our financial troubles, we will forget that American boys are being killed in Iraq.

If all this weren't disconcerting enough, Republicans are accused of calling the police on Democrats during a July 18 House Ways and Means Committee altercation. Reportedly, free speech was at the center of the controversy.

Those of us who value our American rights are worried, and rightly so. We are fast becoming a closed society in which what you say can get you into big trouble, where intimidation and fear are governmental bywords.

If we are not allowed to speak out, to voice our political opinions without fear of retribution, then our fight against world oppression is already lost. We have become what we set out to destroy.

Ask the singer who joked about "chicken legs."

DONNIE JOHNSTON covers the Culpeper area for The Free Lance-Star. Write him at The Free Lance-Star, 616 Amelia St., Fredericksburg, VA 22401; or by fax at 540/373-8455.

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