Sunday, November 20, 2005

The New McCarthyism

Last Friday, Republicans in Congress forced a vote on a resolution they had no intention of passing. Following conservative, hawkish Democratic Congressman John Murtha’s eloquent and emotional statement about the war in Iraq, in which he concluded it is time to begin taking the troops out of Iraq, Republicans played politics with the war by proposing a “sense of the House” resolution stating that troops should be pulled out of Iraq immediately. Only three Democrats voted in favor of this resolution. The other 200 or so (including Murtha himself) do not favor an immediate pullout, the “cut and run” straw man that talking point spouting Republicans endlessly blather about.

I watched some of the vote on the resolution on C-Span. As members voted on a preliminary issue, C-Span took calls from viewers. I was struck by the vitriol, bile, and pure hatred voiced by callers who support the President. They called Democrats “communists”, and “cowards and traitors” (more than one caller used these words). They equated support for the troops with support for the administration – which means, of course, if you don’t support President Bush, you don’t support the troops in the field. They said criticizing the troops undermined the morale of the troops in Iraq, who don’t like to know their president is being criticized at home (which assumes, of course, that all soldiers support Bush).

Where do Americans get the idea that critics of the war are treasonous, dishonorable cowards? From their leaders and from conservative media. Responding to Congressman Murtha’s statement, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan suggested that Murtha (a decorated 37 year Marine veteran) wanted to “surrender” to terrorists. Congresswoman Jean Schmidt (R-OH) called Murtha a “coward” on the House floor (she was shamed into striking her insult from the record). Congressman Geoff Davis (R-KY) says the “liberal leadership have…cooperated with our enemies and our emboldening our enemies.” Fox News’ Sean Hannity told his guest, General Wesley Clark, that he he’s “had it with [Democrats] undermining our troops, undermining our commander in chief while we’re at war.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently scorned what he called “the surrender wing of American foreign policy”. On Veteran’s Day, President Bush himself slimed Democratic critics of the war in Iraq, calling them “deeply irresponsible”, saying they were “send[ing] the wrong signal to our troops and [the] enemy”. He continued by suggesting that it was not clear if critics of the war support the troops.

At least one Republican in Congress has rejected this new McCarthyism. Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said at a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations last week that “question[ing] your government is not unpatriotic—to not question your government is unpatriotic.” He scolded the Bush administration not to “demonize” those who disagree with its policies.

When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, he promised to raise the level of public discourse. Just the opposite has happened. We have reached a point where the White House Press Secretary and members of Congress find it acceptable to question the courage and patriotism of a decorated Marine in Congress who has dared to raise questions about an unpopular war. If President Bush still wants to elevate the tone of debate, he will issue an unequivocal public statement reminding his supporters that we are all Americans, that raising questions about the war in Iraq does not make someone a traitor, and that dissent does not make someone a supporter of terrorism. Don’t hold your breath on this though. The administration’s strategy at the moment is to slander and insult anyone who dissents. The longer this continues, the more likely ordinary Americans will feel emboldened to call their neighbors and fellow Americans from the other political party traitors, communists, and surrender monkeys. We can do much better than this, but we probably won’t, at least not anytime soon.


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