Ballot Box

War and Commentary

In a Sept. 11 dispatch from Lower Manhattan, I wrote that George W. Bush’s first TV appearance after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington failed to create any sense of reassurance. “My honest, churlish reaction: I wish Bill Clinton were still the president,” I wrote.

That comment came at the end of a horrific day, after I was evacuated with my family from our apartment a few blocks away from the World Trade Center. It was hardly a considered comment. Just the same, I almost immediately regretted writing it. It was a small-minded, partisan thing to say at a moment when the president was struggling to deal with a national catastrophe of vast proportion. However insignificant, what I wrote militated in the direction of making his job more difficult. Since then, I’ve refrained from amplifying any doubts I may have about Bush’s leadership.

Is that the right posture for a commentator? Three weeks later, I’m uncomfortable with it. For one thing, refraining from criticism renders whatever comments one does make untrustworthy. Like everyone else in the commentariat, I thought Bush’s Sept. 20 speech to Congress was excellent. But I didn’t write that at the time in Slate, in part because my praise would have been so redundant and in part because I had been holding back from criticizing Bush over the previous week. It seemed dishonest to praise only the positive aspects of the president’s performance. But abstaining from positive as well as negative comments is an even poorer solution to the problem. It’s a highway to analytic celibacy.

What, then, if anything, should someone in my position avoid saying at a time like this? I’m not a combat correspondent or an investigative reporter, so I don’t face the quandaries that sometimes visit those kinds of journalists. Nothing I can say can imperil American troops overseas or tip off the enemy. But people in my corner of the profession also feel a patriotic responsibility as well as a professional one. What we say potentially has a significant effect on public morale, on national cohesion, and ultimately on political support for any military action. Does war–or this crisis in particular–impose any special limitations on public criticism? I think this question applies not only to journalists but also to intellectuals, academics, artists, and others with strong political views and access to a public forum.

Historically, the question of responsibility has been tied up with the issue of censorship. During World War I, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which made it a crime punishable by 20 years in prison to make comments critical of the government, to incite Americans not to fight, or to otherwise “promote the success” of America’s enemies. The socialist leader Eugene V. Debs was sent to prison for making a speech criticizing this law. That was only one of many drastic infringements of the right to free speech that took place during the era. The radical magazine the Masses was essentially closed by the government for arguing that the United States should not take sides in the war. Another leading intellectual journal of the time, the Seven Arts, lost its private sponsorship as a result of its anti-war attitude.

Today only the latter kind of nongovernmental censorship remains much of an issue. The comedian Bill Maher is facing the loss of commercial sponsorship for his program Politically Incorrect for noting that the attack on the World Trade Center was not cowardly but that firing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away is. A columnist at a small-town paper in Oregon was fired for writing that President Bush “hid” on the day of the attack. As reported on Jim Romenesko’s “Media News,” the publisher of the Texas City Sun apologized to readers for exposing them to the “very inappropriate opinion” that Bush was leading the country into a hasty and ill-advised war.

For those of us who work for opinion journals and national news organizations, even that kind of private censorship isn’t really an issue. No one is likely to prevent us from speaking our minds or punish us for saying what we think. Rather, the issue for us is one of voluntary self-censorship and discretion: Should we withhold certain views because they are likely to further distress people at a time of national crisis?

Obviously, many writers don’t feel any such constraint. Upsetting, offensive comments have been pouring in lately from both the left and the right. Last week, Katha Pollitt, a Slate contributor, wrote in The Nation about her 13-year-old daughter wanting to hang an American flag. “Definitely not, I say,” she wrote. “The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war.” I suppose she gets some credit for telling this story on herself. At the other end of things, my friend Andrew Sullivan wrote in the Sunday Times of London: “The middle part of the country–the great red zone that voted for Bush–is clearly ready for war. The decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead–and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column.” (My colleague Tim Noah caught this, prompting Sullivan to semi-apologize.)

I was appalled by both statements, just as some readers were at my comment about Bush. But can I argue that present circumstances compel writers to hold back on saying what they really think? The issue, it seems to me, is one of harm. What is the case that such comments do more than discomfit those who disagree with them? The traditional argument is that such expressions have the power to undermine our national solidarity, our collective will or our ability to fight. But when you think about it, they might just as easily have the opposite effect. Insults to the flag like Pollitt’s tend to inspire bellicosity, not pacifism. And questioning the loyalty of Democrats as Sullivan does may prompt them to try to demonstrate that they are just as patriotic as the folks in the “red” zone.

More importantly, it’s not fair or reasonable for those of us in favor of the war to shut up the opposition to it by saying they’re undermining national unity. If you’re against the war, undermining national unity is exactly what you should be doing. At another time in history–Vietnam or the Mexican-American War–some of us who are hawks now might have felt precisely the same obligation. Vigorous, sometimes painful disagreement is inherent in democratic decision-making, even when it comes to war and national security. Moreover, criticism from any corner can help as well as hinder our wartime leaders. Imagine that no one had dared to make any public criticism of Bush’s initial performance. How would the president and his advisers have known that his leadership was lacking? Wartime opinion polls surely wouldn’t tell them. In this way, even criticism meant unconstructively may prove helpful.

All that said, I would still argue that those of us who speak in public should refrain from what is ordinarily the sound journalistic instinct to say the strongest and most incendiary thing possible–to throw bombs, as one might say in ordinary times. Six thousand civilians were just slaughtered in the worst act of butchery our nation has ever known. Whatever else we think about the war that has yet to start, it is only fitting that we lower our voices. To be nasty, to be petty, to turn what happened into an opportunity for a Crossfire shouting match seems to me tasteless and disrespectful. Our words should not demean this horror.

For the time being, my own rule will be to be as critical as warranted, but to try to write in the spirit of Sept. 11. When I have something negative to say, I’ll try to say it without impugning the motives, the competence, or the intelligence of our wartime leaders. The time for barbed comments will return. At the moment, though, we can all do without them.