Much of the time, our political debate is too narrow. The range of options we are offered is too small.
For instance: starting about 30 minutes afer the Sept. 11 attacks, and continuing this week with Dick Cheney’s blast against the Get-Out-Pretty-Soon Democrats, many politicians and almost all the commentariat have presented us with this oversimplified dilemma:
One side says that loud, vigorous debate and dissent about the war on terror and the war in Iraq will undermine our troops’ morale and give aid and comfort to our enemies.
The other side says that debate and dissent are the essence of the very democratic principles we are fighting to preserve. If we stifle free expression, we are handing the terrorists a victory.
That’s it. Two choices. Take to the microphones and hurt our cause, or shut up and hand the terrorists a moral victory.
Let me propose a third way of looking at it:
Both sides are right. Our commitment to free, open debate and movement of information helps our enemies. And we’ve got to keep right on talking, debating, and letting that info flow.
Take some examples. How can cover stories in Time or this recent Newsweek cover, or any of a dozen others we could pick each month, fail to inspire (pick your monicker) terrorists/insurgents/glorious freedom fighters?
If you were a rock-throwing Palestinian, or a black-hooded, head-chopping Jihadist hiding in the warrens of Baghdad, wouldn’t making the cover of a magazine read by thousands and seen by millions inspire you? You commit an act, and hours later millions of people in the land of your enemy know what you did, see it in living, flaming color.
Of course you’re encouraged. If you believe in a cause, whether it’s more humane hog-farming, breast- cancer awareness, or blowing up little kids on their way to kindergarten, of course you want publicity for that cause. Publicity is the lifeblood of any insurgency, cause-marketing campaign, or plea to change the public’s mind. If nobody knows about you, you basically don’t exist.
If I were Osama or one of his henchmen, I’d do a victory dance every time Charlie Gibson or Katie Couric gave me 1:32 of precious TV time. And I’d be ecstatic to know that my enemies are sorely divided in their thinking about how to handle me. How delicious to know that powerful public officials would like to stop the fighting and bring their soldiers home. How wonderful to see the enemy’s media compete to see who can run the most pictures of the disgraceful abuse at Abu Ghraib prison.
So, yes, America’s freedom of the press and rampant freedom of discussion helps our enemies. We need to face that fact. A lot of good-hearted, optimistic people don’t want to see it that way. They want a 100% win-win situation for our side. They want freedom of speech, because it is undeniably a great Good, to be all Good.
But all values have their flip sides, their unintended consequences. As Isaiah Berlin reminds us, one good thing is not another. Freedom of speech is freedom of speech. It’s not security. Freedom of the press is freedom of the press. It’s not necessarily the best tactic to use against an enemy.
But–and this is vital–openness is our way. It’s what we do. It’s what we’re great at doing, and it’s one of main reasons millions of people from around the world would give everything they have to be teleported from Tehran or Cairo or Fallujah to Milwaukee or Fort Collins or San Jose right now. We talk. We argue. We debate. In so doing, we lay ourselves open to people who would like to hurt us and destroy our system.
So be it. Our faith is that, ultimately, we’re strong enough to win any war of ideas, even if we often fight with one hand tied behind our backs. Our loud, messy way will triumph over their closed, authoritarian secrecy. It’s worked so far.
If we’re going down, we’re going down talking. As much as anything, that’s the American Way.