An Audible Silence

excerpted from the book

Gag Rule

On the Suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy

by Lewis Lapham

Penguin Books, 2004, paper

Public opinion polls taken in March 2004 (US) found that a majority of the American people blamed Saddam Hussein for the destruction of the World Trade towers, regarded global warming as a myth, and believed that the President of the United States didn't know how to tell a lie. The articles of faith remained securely in place seven months later on an Election Day that not only awarded President Bush a decisive plurality of the popular vote but also enlarged the Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The London Daily Mirror published its tabulation of the result under the headline, How can 59,054 ,087 people be so dumb?, which was the same question that on the morning of November 3 confounded every late or early rising Democrat in Manhattan.

Among the company at lunch in a downtown restaurant catering to the media trades the conversation consisted of little else except the exchange of stunned silences. All present had been so certain that the election would go the other way. How could it not? The American people might be dumb, but were they also deaf and blind? Surely the facts spoke for themselves. Under a pretext demonstrably false, the Bush Administration had embarked the country on a disastrous and unnecessary war, darkened its economic future with a pall of toxic debt, assigned the care of its natural resources to the commercial interests certain to strip the land, poison the water, and pollute the air. What else did a voter need to know? Didn't people read the papers, look at the news broadcasts from Baghdad, listen to the voices of reason? Apparently not. What in New York had passed for the semblance of dissent had been seen by the national television audience as entertainment.

Garry Wills explained ... that "many more Americans believe in the Virgin Birth than in Darwin's theory of evolution."

Archibald MacLeish

The dissenter is every human being at those moments in his life when he resigns momentarily from the herd and thinks for himself.

... the survival of the American democracy depends less on the size of its armies than on the capacity of its individual citizens to rely, if only momentarily, on the strength of their own thought.

... a democracy stands in need of as many questions as its citizens can ask of their own stupidity and fear.


Robert Kagan in the Washington Post

"Congress, in fact, should immediately declare war. It does not have to name a country."


Steve Dunleavy in the New York Post:

"The response to this unimaginable 21st century Pearl Harbor should be as simple as it is swift-kill the bastards .... Train assassins.... Hire mercenaries .... As for cities or countries that host these worms, bomb them into basketball courts."


Richard Brookhiser in the New York Observer:

"The response to such a stroke cannot be legal or diplomatic-the international equivalent of mediation, or judge Judy. This is what we have a military for. Let's not build any more atomic bombs until we use the ones we have."


Ann Coulter, in National Review Online

"We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity."

Attorney General Ashcroft before the Senate Judiciary Committee, December 6, 2001

"To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends."

Peter Beinart, editor at The New Republic

"The nation is now at war. And in such an environment, domestic political dissent is immoral without a prior statement of national solidarity, a choosing of sides."

... dissent consists of nothing else except the right to say no, to volunteer a second or third opinion; defined as another word for liberty ...

Teddy Roosevelt, 1918 when he disagreed with President Woodrow Wilson's theory of World War I:

"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but it is morally treasonable to the American public."

Henry Steele Commager, Columbia University historian, Harper's Magazine an essay, 'Who Is Loyal to America?", 1947

It is easier to say what loyalty is not than what it is. It is not conformity. It is not passive acquiescence to the status quo. It is not preference for everything American over everything foreign. It is not an ostrich-like ignorance of the other countries and other institutions. It is not the indulgence in ceremony-a flag salute, an oath of allegiance, a fervid verbal declaration. It is not a particular creed, a particular vision of history, a particular body of economic practices, a particular philosophy.

It is a tradition, an ideal, and a principle. It is a willingness to subordinate every private advantage for the larger good. It is an appreciation of the rich and diverse contributions that can come from the most varied sources. It is allegiance to the traditions that have guided our greatest statesmen and inspired our most eloquent poets-the traditions of freedom, equality, democracy, tolerance, and the tradition of Higher Law, of experimentation, cooperation, and pluralism. It is the realization that America was born of revolt, flourished on dissent, became great through experimentation.

Thomas Paine, 1776

When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want; the taxes are not oppressive... when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government.

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, or by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

Michael Ignatieff

Imperial powers do not have the luxury of timidity, for timidity is not prudence; it is a confession of weakness.

... The United States is multilateral when it wants to be, unilateral when it must be; and it enforces a new division of labor in which America does the fighting, the French, British and Germans do the police patrols in the border zones and the Dutch, Swiss and Scandinavians provide the humanitarian aid.

Every newspaper in the country welcomed Secretary Powell's performance at the United Nations with corroborating sighs of helpless infatuation. The secretary held up air force surveillance photographs requiring the same kind of arcane exposition that New York art critics attach to exhibitions of abstract painting, displayed a vial of white powder (meant to be seen as anthrax but closer in its chemistry to granulated sugar), and rolled tape of two satellite telephone intercepts of Iraqi military officers screaming at each other in Arabic. The theatrical effects evaded an answer to the question, Why does America attack Iraq when Iraq hasn't attacked America? In lieu of demonstrable provocations Mr. Powell offered disturbing signs and evil portents, and when the voice of Osama bin Laden turned up a week later on an audiotape broadcast from Qatar, the secretary seized upon the occasion to discover a "partnership" between Al Qaeda and the government of Iraq. No such conclusion could be drawn from even a careless reading of the transcript, but to Mr. Powell the sending of a message (any message) proved that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein had somehow morphed into the same enemy. The secretary's power points didn't add to the sum of a convincing argument, but then neither had the advertising copy for the Spanish-American War or the sales promotions for the war in Vietnam, and if the agitprop failed to persuade the French, Russian, or Chinese representatives to the Security Council, it was more than good enough for the emissaries from the major Amen[san news media.*

If during the months prior to the bombing of Baghdad on March 19, every government spokesperson in Washington had attributed to Saddam Hussein the supernatural powers of the Antichrist, the first week of the invasion proved every assertion false. In place of Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin (a villain "stifling the world," presenting an immediate and terrible danger not only to the peoples of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Kuwait but also to every man, woman, and child in the United States, certain to oppose any attempts of punishment with vengeful clouds of poison gas), the American armies found remnants of a dictator more accurately compared to a psychopathic prison warden, a brutal but almost comic figure, so enslaved by the dream of his omnipotence that he apparently had entrusted the defense of his kingdom to histrionic press releases and gigantic portraits of himself armed with a shotgun and a porkpie hat. No Iraqi shock troops appeared in the field to oppose the Third Infantry Division's advance into the valley of the Euphrates; no Iraqi aircraft presumed to leave the ground; no allied combat unit met with, much less knew where to find, the fabled weapons of mass destruction. The desultory shows of resistance at the river crossings constituted ragged skirmish lines of young men for the most part poorly armed, so many of them out of uniform that it wasn't worth the trouble to distinguish between the military and the civilian dead.

The weakness of the Iraqi target made ridiculous Washington's propaganda posters. Here was the American army in the sinister landscape of Iraq, equipped to fight the Battle of Normandy or El Alamein but conducting a police action in the manner of the Israeli assassination teams hunting down Palestinian terrorists in the rubble of the Gaza Strip. How then would it be possible to hide in plain sight the false pretext of Operation Iraqi Freedom? The Bush administration answered the question by simply changing the mission statement. The American army had not come to Iraq to remove the totalitarian menace threatening all of Western civilization-absolutely not; the American army had come briefly eastward into Eden to "liberate" the long-suffering Iraqi people from the misery inflicted upon them by an evildoer with the bad habit of cutting out their tongues. One excuse for war was as good as any other.

The cable networks meanwhile rejoiced in the chance to tell a tale worthy of the late Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers and Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation. Journalists on duty at the Pentagon characterized the assault as a magnificent achievement, one of the most extraordinary military campaigns ever conducted in the history of the world; reporters traveling with the troops discovered comparisons to the glory of World War 11-the tanks in the desert reminding them of Generals George Patton and Erwin Rommel, the Siege of Basra analogous to the defense of Stalingrad. When temporarily short of incoming footage from Iraq, the television producers in Washington and New York dressed up their screens with American flags and courageous anchorpersons pledging allegiance to "America's Bravest." MSNBC decorated its primary set with a portrait of President Bush - the studio equivalent of a loyalty oath-and the executive in charge of the network was proud to say that the press had no business asking ugly questions. "After September 11 the country wants more optimism and benefit of the doubt .... It's about being positive as opposed to being negative." At Fox News the talking heads transformed their jingoistic fervor into an article of totalitarian faith, their on-camera sermons preached directly to any scoundrels who might have wandered into the viewing audience with the dissenting notion that the war was not a war and therefore unnecessary as well as wrong: "You were sickening then, you are sickening now;" "leftist stooges," "absolutely committing sedition, or treason."

Although by Easter Sunday the purification of Iraq was still a work in progress-Saddam Hussein nowhere to be found, sporadic gunfire lingering in the streets of Baghdad and Mosul, a new government not yet seated on its prayer rugs-in Washington the flags were blooming on the bandstands, and the heralds of American empire were crying up the news of great and glorious victory. The legions under the command of General Tommy Franks had destroyed the semblance of an Iraqi army, rescued the oil fields of Kirkuk, chased an evil tyrant from his throne, cleansed the cradle of civilization of an unsanitary regime. Priced at the cost of $60 billion and 129 American lives (45 of them lost in accidents), the month's work lifted President George W. Bush to a 70 percent approval rating in the opinion polls, the friends and officers of his administration everywhere attended by congratulatory nods and gifts of loyal applause. Important newspaper columnists pointed proudly to the "high-water mark" of America's "resurgent power"; elevated sources at the White House declared themselves well pleased with "the demonstration effect" of a military maneuver that "opens all sorts of new opportunities for us."

Concerns about the possible squeamishness of the primetime audience when exposed to scenes of horror proved to be unwarranted and overblown. On the first day of hostilities President Bush cautioned the country's senior news executives against publishing photographs of dead Iraqi civilians. As events moved forward and the home audience registered its approval of a new and improved form of reality TV, it was understood that foreign dead counted merely as unpaid extras briefly available to the producers of the nightly news to fuel the fireballs and stand around in front of the machine-gun bullets. By April 12 the American public had shown sufficient bravery in the face of a distant enemy that the New York Times didn't think it imprudent to publish a handsome color photograph of dead Iraqi children thrown like spoiled vegetables into a refrigerated truck.

Michael Ledeen, resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute

"Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business." Thus spake the Zarathustras of the Bush administration contemplating the ruin of what was once the World Trade Center. Let any nation anywhere on earth even begin to think of challenging the American supremacy (military, cultural, socioeconomic), and America reserves the right to strangle the impudence at birth-to bomb the peasants or the palace, block the flows of oil or bank credit, change the linen in the information ministries and the hotels. The motion carried without undue objection on the part of the American public or the American news media. Told that the truth didn't matter, that motive was irrelevant, and that the Bush administration was free to do as it pleased, the heirs and assigns of what was once a democratic republic greeted the announcement with an audible and respectful silence.

Gag Rule

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