St. Petersburg Times Online: Opinion

Questioning authority is still essential

St. Petersburg Times, published October 13, 2001

Some of us have wrapped ourselves in the flag so tightly that our brains may not be getting enough oxygen.

The television show Politically Incorrect was dropped by some ABC affiliates because its host, Bill Maher, had the temerity to trust in the First Amendment and say something, well, politically incorrect about the U.S. military. Addressing the issue, Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer informed Americans that "they need to watch what they say and watch what they do."

And if they don't, others will watch for them. A letter to the editor in the Oct. 8 issue of Time magazine says people must become "providers of information to authorities about those who act suspiciously or voice anti-American opinions."

So now we all become our own little Un-American Activities Committees, finger on the speed dial programmed with the FBI's 800 number, Lee Greenwood's God Bless the USA blasting in the background?

There's nothing more American than dissent, nothing we should be prouder of than our right to question authority. It's scary when some no doubt well-intentioned citizen wants us to inform on those who might go on a peace march or fail to have the Stars and Stripes flying from the front porch or suggest that expanding the government's power to wiretap is not such a great idea. It's downright ominous for the White House to imply that criticism of the government is unpatriotic.

You can be a good American and think bombing Afghanistan back to whatever came before the Stone Age won't stop terrorism. You can be a good American and feel that cutting the capital gains tax will not cure our rickety economy (though it'll cheer up rich folks). You can be a good American and deplore attacks on our civil liberties in the name of "national security."

We may be at war, but that shouldn't make us forget what the country is supposed to be about.

The Bush administration calls the military campaign against the Taliban "Operation Enduring Freedom," yet seeks to limit some of our freedoms. Despite all the calls for "national unity," now's the time to exercise those freedoms -- in Washington and Tallahassee -- in vigorous debate. If the debate is partisan, fine. That's what democracy is about. We still have a society to run here. We have children to educate, the elderly and the sick to care for, unemployed people who need jobs, an environment to protect, rights to safeguard.

The Bush brothers -- George W. and Jeb -- have been getting a free ride in the name of a patriotism that equates love of country with conformity and quiescence. Republicans in the U.S. Senate are trying to use our "national emergency" to push through the nominations of conservative judges. If Democrats protest, they are accused of not standing behind the president.

Democrats in the Florida Legislature have been saying that the state's precipitous budget shortfall, obvious for months now, means less money for social services, education, you name it. Gov. Jeb Bush denied it. House Speaker Tom Feeney denied it. When Bush and Feeney finally admitted the state was in trouble, they blamed the terrible events of Sept. 11. Calling that political opportunism, wondering if cuts in the intangibles tax and other hand-outs to the wealthy had something to do with the shortfall, why, that would be downright "unpatriotic."

Even more alarming, Floridians' constitutional right to know what their government does in their name is under siege. In a report on "Anti-Terrorism Capabilities," Jeb Bush and FDLE Commissioner Tim Moore suggest law enforcement be allowed to arrest a person and keep his or her name, the date and location of the incident and the arrest, as well as the charge, secret. Moore complained in an interview on National Public Radio the other day that he doesn't like it when a reporter shows up at a suspect's house before a police officer. Understandable from his point of view, though you'd think that was a fault in law enforcement, not the public's right to governmental oversight.

Now Speaker Tom Feeney wants to be able to hold secret legislative meetings. In a letter to the First Amendment Foundation, he quotes the provision in the Florida Constitution (Article III, Section 4e) he claims would allow it, but uses ellipses to leave out the language which, to put it charitably, complicates the issue. This is evidently a trick they teach in first-year law school -- you might just get a judge who's too lazy to check the full text.

It's to be hoped that the citizens, and the free press that serves us all, are not too lazy to check the full text and check out what we are told. Challenging those who rule us is not just an American right, it's an imperative. An America that debates, argues, criticizes, questions and even offends is the only America worth fighting for. Otherwise, what freedom can endure?

-- Diane Roberts, a former Times editorial writer, is a professor of English at the University of Alabama.

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