Last night I recalled that my father’s generation frequently used an expression that I don’t hear too often anymore: “I disagree with him, but I defend his right to have that opinion.” I’m not sure what the specific contexts were when I heard that phrase, but I heard it a lot as I was growing up. The basic premise was that the right to disagree is better than the consequences of uniformity. This may have been part of our mentality during the Cold War: the generation that used this phrase fought in Korea, Vietnam, and worried about nuclear weapons in Cuba and Eastern Europe. There seemed to be a profound conviction that the right to disagree was paramount to a better society.
It’s been awhile since heard this phrase. Maybe it has to do with the fall of the Berlin wall, the collapse of Soviet rule, the September 11th attacks, or misanthropic cynicism.
I am not sure.
My reason for concern is related to the recent search and seizure operation of the homes of anti-war activists in Chicago and Minneapolis. This is part of a broader policy aimed at organizations that oppose a diverse array of policies. The organizations that have been investigated have ranged from environmentalists and animal rights activists to the Arab American Action Network, and pacifist organizations like Catholic Workers, the Quakers and the Thomas Merton Center of Pittsburgh. Activists in Chicago and Minneapolis have had their records seized and have been served with grand jury subpoenas requesting records of charitable donations. While the FBI in Chicago stated that there were no arrests and that there was no “imminent danger” to the public, the inability to distinguish civil dissent and humanitarian advocacy from terrorism is a concern. The nut of the government’s argument is that these organizations may be providing material support or training to terrorist organizations in the Middle East and South America.
Although the recent searches and seizures may find support under the recent Supreme Court decision regarding FTOs, the High Court’s deference to politicians is ahistorical, unprincipled and short sighted. Under these conditions, Mahatma Gandhi himself might have been linked to terrorist organizations, despite his commitment to non-violent struggle. The ironies, however, don’t stop here. Had the Reagan Era conservatives taken this same approach with the terrorist element of the Cuban exile movement, those same groups would not have taken the moderate, non-violent and pro-democracy stances that they have today. The members of those same anti-Castro groups, much like former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the late ‘40s, were considered terrorists, and now many of them have taken politically ethical and responsible positions promoting democracy on the island. They were able to take a civil and responsible approach to politics because their cause was legitimized even when their actions met with almost universal condemnation. This was accomplished because politicians had the foresight to promote dialogue and distinguish between rational and irrational claims.
While no one can dispute the legitimate concern for following transfers of large sums of money from one international organization to another, we should keep in mind that Colonel Oliver North doesn’t work for the Thomas Merton Center or the Animal Liberation Front. These organizations frankly don’t have the resources to make the kinds of purchases that constitute a threat. The manage from bake sale to bake sale. Hence, it is much more likely that the search and seizures are aimed at interrupting the dissemination of information about those who are affected by US policies abroad. Recent editorials in the Boston Globe and the New York Times have characterized this type of surveillance, search and seizure, and harassment as an attempt to stifle dissent.
Although I don’t support the agendas of these organizations. I am an unrepentant carnivore, I don’t like Che T-Shirts, and I am aware that the FARC in Colombia are a band of murderous thugs engaged in major drug trafficking, kidnapping, and political intimidation and extortion. And, the same can be said for the Colombian paramilitaries. It is doubtful that either organization receives much from bake sales. I’ll add that I am not a leftist. However, a person doesn’t have to be a leftist or a radical to consider the wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan as the largest political blunders of the 20th and 21st centuries. The Bush II land-war policies will make the surgical-strike policies by Reagan-Era hawks look like acts of genius in comparison. Former US Senator Paul Wellstone perhaps said it best when he commented that our occupational forces in the Middle East would stir up a wave of anti-Americanism that would last for at least another 100 years. Was the West any more successful during the Crusades?
Although I don’t care to hear “Give Peace a Chance” again (too weepy for me), we need to defend their right to sing it.
Check back tomorrow for the second installment of “Double Murder and a Toothbrush”