How is it, asks columnist Gene Lyons, that the people most strenuously vocal about defending liberties abroad can be willing to suspend them at home? Debate and dissent are the crucial elements of democracy's single greatest advantage over other forms of government -- its capacity for self-correction.

In Time of War

By Gene Lyons, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Even in a time of war, there is also politics. The notion that all differences of opinion should be put aside for the duration is itself a political statement, and not a very clever one. Open debate is essential to defending freedom.

Democracies can be disorderly and slow to act, but the most catastrophic military blunders of the last century--Hitler attacking Russia, Japan bringing the U.S. into the war--were made by dictators. Secrecy and lies got the U.S. into Vietnam; an awful lot of messy and divisive democracy eventually got us out.

With few exceptions, Americans have closed ranks behind President Bush in the struggle against terrorism. The terrible reality of the September 11 attacks caused an almost instantaneous re-ordering of priorities. But yes, there will still be congressional elections a year hence and a presidential contest in 2004. If history is any guide, they will be vigorously contested. Millions who support Bush today fully intend to vote against him tomorrow.

It's precisely this aspect of democracy which baffles and infuriates mad zealots like Osama bin Laden. They mistake the provisional assent of a free people for a fatal weakness. Actually, it's our greatest strength. Oddly, a small, but noisy group of Americans also don't seem to get it. A number of professional scolds persist in making nasty attacks upon the character and patriotism of domestic political rivals as if the nation were still involved in a make-believe event like the Clinton impeachment instead of a life and death matter.

Most prominent are the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of televangelism, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Without re-hashing their sickening pronouncement that the terrorist atrocities were God's punishment for the usual list of fundamentalist bogeymen (and women), suffice it to say that if no other good comes of this dreadful event, it's that this preposterous duo can bend over and kiss their own sanctimonious posteriors goodbye. They're through in politics. No sane presidential candidate will ever again solicit or accept their endorsement.

Then there's Rush Limbaugh and his zany pals at the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Whose fault was the terrorist attack? Bill Clinton's, of course. According to Rush, Clinton "can be held culpable for not doing enough when he was commander in chief to combat the terrorists who wound up attacking the World Trade Center and Pentagon." Yeah, well, coulda, shoulda, woulda as Hillary Clinton once said in a different context. This bunch sang a different song in 1998, when Clinton made a move against bin Laden. Then the panting voyeurs hollered that it messed up the focus on the electron microscope Kenneth Starr had inserted into the president's undershorts. It'd be instructive to know how many FBI agents wasted the Clinton years investigating Democrats for imaginary crimes instead of pursuing America's real enemies.

Michael Kelly, Washington's most dyspeptic political journalist, rants about pacifists, whom he derides as "liars," "frauds," "hypocrites," "profoundly immoral," "pro-terrorist," and "evil." Except, get this: in two columns, Kelly's yet to name even one. So who's he talking about? College kids petitioning for world peace? A few balding ex-hippies with ponytails? A "Voices" writer recently opined that terrorism was God's (long delayed) punishment for Woodstock, the Vietnam era rock festival. Kelly wouldn't be so crude, but he does appear to share the same wavelength.

Then there's British transplant Andrew Sullivan, who also blamed terrorism on Clinton. "The narcissistic, feckless, escapist culture of an America absent without leave in the world," he wrote "was fomented from the top." Never mind that Sullivan's own colorful sexual foibles were exposed in the gay underground press last summer. Soon after the September 11 attacks, he wrote that a "Fifth column" of terrorist sympathizers would develop in the states which voted against Bush. Reminded rather forcefully that New York was one of them, he shifted blame to "enclaves of the decadent left." Pressed for examples, he directed his critics to a "United Peoples" website, which turned out to be located in Denmark.

Of similar ilk was a Democrat-Gazette editorial scolding columnist Katha Pollitt of The Nation, who'd described an argument with her high school age daughter about "flying the American flag out our window. Definitely not, I say: The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war..." The editorialist had no trouble wrapping himself in the flag. Mainly because he'd neglected to quote Pollitt's next sentences, which read: "She tells me I'm wrong--the flag means standing together and honoring the dead and saying no to terrorism. In a way we're both right: The Stars and Stripes is the only available symbol right now."

Without meaning to, some of President Bush's warmest supporters have given him a terrific political opportunity. He should pick an opportunity to say that while vigorous debate is appropriate, finger-pointing and assaults on other Americans' patriotism are not.

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