This column was awarded Honorable Mention in the National Newspaper Association’s 2002 Contest for “Best Serious Column” for a small, non-daily newspaper.
Within days after a stunned nation responded with an outbreak of patriotism to the horrific September 11th terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC, few seemed to care about political correctness.
For several days it seemed inappropriate — not to mention un-American — to take pot shots at or denounce political leaders who were trying to guide the nation through the devastating trauma. Nevertheless, there arose a few small pockets of criticism and protests that were swiftly rebuked.
While there was scant attention paid to these insensitive remarks and minor protests as the nation was awash in red, white and blue, it did, however, underscore the nation’s revered right of free speech. Televangelist Jerry Falwell and talk show host/comedian Bill Maher used their respective forums to express personal opinions that were as unwelcome as they were untimely in the aftermath of such tragic events.
When Falwell, a staunch conservative and Christian fundamentalist, addressed an audience and listeners on a nationally syndicated television show, he blamed certain groups — homosexuals, the American Civil Liberties Union, pro-abortionists and Hollywood liberals, among them — by implying that terrorist attacks was some kind of divine retribution for the nation’s corrupt culture. But, even some of his most loyal supporters joined the subsequent storm to condemn his remarks.
As smoke and ashes still fill the air at Ground Zero a week after the Twin Towers collapsed, Maher said on his late night network show, “Politically Incorrect,” that it was “cowardly for the U.S. to be lobbing missiles from thousands of miles away,” while condoning the terrorist hijackers for remaining faithful to their cause.
The comedian later clarified his comments, which he said were directed at politicians, not the military, but the explanation came too late. Two corporate sponsors withdrew national advertising and several network affiliates refused to carry Maher’s show, which was eventually canceled.
Despite the clarification, and whether or not you agree with Maher or Falwell, they each had the absolute right to express their opinions.
A White House spokesman obviously ignored the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech when he denounced Maher and warned Americans “to watch what they say” in these critical times.
Last week, before the first bombs were dropped on Afghanistan, small groups, holding signs with the familiar peace symbol of the 60s antiwar movement on them, began sprouting on college campuses — time-honored centers of antigovernment opposition — across the country to express dissatisfaction with the anticipated retaliation and to blame American for its current woes due to decades of misguided foreign policy.
While most Americans undoubtedly sneered at these demonstrations, as well as Falwell and Maher’s remarks, it would be terribly unjustified to prohibit or even limit their statements, as well of others of that nature, now or in the future. We are, after all, defending that and other freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights.
Actually, some of our guaranteed freedoms have already been subtly — and not so subtly — curtailed as we are subjected to a coast-to-coast lockdown in anticipation of more attacks.
In and around New York City, and in or near government buildings and airports nationwide, security is as tight as hard-to-open over-the-counter bottles of pain killers — as it should be for the present. For days, National Guard troops have been posted at bridges, tunnels and transportation hubs across the city as officials said this week New Yorkers — and all Americans — should get used to living in an atmosphere of heightened security.
Martial law, dusk-to-dawn curfews, street closures, random searches of vehicles and personal effects have yet to be introduced, but strategic checkpoints manned by military personnel or law enforcement officers may become commonplace in Manhattan to thwart additional threats.
Yet, even as we accept our freedoms being curbed — in order to preserve them — we cannot question the right of a few to express their opinions.
Right now, halfway across the world our military forces are engaged in a campaign to protect the American way of life that recently suffered a shocking setback.
In our dogged determination, as we revile and condemn minority voices opposed to majority views, they must never be silenced. If that’s sanctioned, victory in the war against terrorism will not only be hollow, but would adversely affect the fundamental rights our forefathers deemed crucial to this nation’s foundation.