Dissenters Face Job Loss, Arrest, Threats but Activists Not Stopped by Backlash
By Kathleen Kenna
August 9, 2003
He's a Vietnam War hero from a proud lineage of warriors who served the United States, so he never expected to be called a traitor. After 39 years in the Marines, including commands in Somalia and Iraq, Gen. Anthony Zinni never imagined he would be tagged "turncoat." The epithets are not from the uniforms but the suits â€” "senior officers at the Pentagon," the now-retired general says from his home in Williamsburg, Va. "They want to question my patriotism?" he demands testily.
To question the Iraq war in the U.S. â€” and individuals from Main St. merchants to Hollywood stars do â€” is to be branded un-American. Dissent, once an ideal cherished in the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, now invites media attacks, hate Web sites, threats and job loss. After Zinni challenged the administration's rationale for the Iraq war last fall, he lost his job as President George W. Bush's Middle East peace envoy after 18 months. "I've been told I will never be used by the White House again."
Across the United States, hundreds of Americans have been arrested for protesting the war. The American Civil Liberties Union has documented more than 300 allegations of wrongful arrest and police brutality from demonstrators at anti-war rallies in Washington and New York. Even the silent, peaceful vigils of Women in Black â€” held regularly in almost every state â€” have prompted threats of arrest by American police. Actors and spouses Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon have publicly denounced the backlash against them for their anti-war activism.
Robbins said they were called "traitors" and "supporters of Saddam" and their public appearances at a United Way luncheon in Florida and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., this spring were cancelled in reaction to their anti-war stance. Actor/comedian Janeane Garofalo was stalked and received death threats for opposing the war in high-profile media appearances.
MSNBC hosts asked viewers to urge MCI to fire actor and anti-war activist Danny Glover as a spokesperson â€” the long-distance telephone giant refused to fire him despite the ensuing hate-mail campaign â€” and one host, former politician Joe Scarborough, urged that anti-war protesters be arrested and charged with sedition.
"There's no official blacklisting," says Kate McArdle, executive director of Artists United, a new group of 120 actors devoted to progressive causes. "This is Hollywood, so there are always rumours starting up. Mostly it was producers saying, `We know your position â€” do you have to be so vocal?'" Internet chat rooms have spouted "tons and tons of vitriol aimed at us," says McArdle, a former network TV executive. "Things like, `Tell me where Tim Robbins lives and I'll go bash out his brains,'" she says. "Or, `If you don't like America, why don't you move to Iraq? Why don't you move to Canada?'
"The real backlash comes from the right wing, from America's talk radio guys â€” when their ratings are down â€” not from the industry," McArdle says. "We get the `You're either with us or agin' us.'" Comes with the territory, she adds. "We're a nation of dissenters."
The Dixie Chicks country pop group won worldwide attention for their anti-Bush comments, which were met with widespread radio station bans against playing their music. Their fans have responded by circulating petitions on the Internet objecting to the "chill" that has tried to silence free speech in the U.S.
And opposition to the war has spawned many new songs â€” some remixes of old Vietnam protest songs â€” and Web sites devoted to anti-war lyrics. Dozens of fans walked out of a Pearl Jam concert in Denver, Colo., last spring when lead singer Eddie Vedder hoisted a Bush mask on a microphone stand and sang, "He's not a leader, he's a Texas leaguer."
But musician Carlos Santana was cheered in Australia â€” a key U.S. ally in the Iraq war and recent proponent of the "Bush doctrine" of intervention in smaller states' affairs â€” when he spoke against the war and American foreign policy.
West Coast bands are organizing a Bands Against Bush free concert and rally in Los Angeles this fall to publicize their discontent with American foreign policy in the Middle East.
Even country singer Merle Haggard, whose song "The Fightin' Side of Me" was a pro-war anthem in the Vietnam era, penned a protest against tame media in the wake of the Dixie Chicks controversy. "That's The News" has bitter lines like:
Soldiers in the desert sand still clinging to a gun
No one is the winner and everyone must lose ...
Politicians do all the talking, soldiers pay the dues
Suddenly the war is over, that's the news.
Peace scholar Stephen Zunes â€” so-named for winning a Peace and Justice Studies Association award for leadership in promoting such scholarship â€” says he was recently "uninvited" to speak to the Arizona state bar association despite a six-month-old commitment. "It's censorship" for his perceived anti-Israel views and outspoken opposition to a foreign policy that has made the U.S. a target of terrorists, says Zunes from his office at the University of San Francisco, where he teaches politics. "You'd think lawyers would be more concerned about civil liberties."
A recent tour for his new book, Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism, drew "obscenity-filled e-mails ... calling me a traitor" and similar "outrage" on-air from TV commentators, he says. "I've been called all sorts of names on national TV. It's been pretty ugly. "There are a lot of Americans who don't want to believe their government is lying to them. It's becoming more and more clear that the American people have been lied to, so I think it's important ... particularly for intellectuals, to point out those lies."
Full-page ads in the New York Times â€” at $37,000 (U.S.) each â€” and other high-circulation dailies have been bought by American religious leaders, actors and a range of wealthy activists to spur anti-war dissent. Harvard dean Stephen Walt, an international affairs professor, helped organize such an ad with 32 other security experts at universities from coast to coast. The wordy ad detailed reasons for fighting terrorism and not Iraq, unless under direct threat, and warned of increasing Middle East instability.
Expressions of support came from colleagues at home and overseas, Walt recalls. "We said you could be against this war without being against uses of necessary force" elsewhere. "The world is a nasty place, but this is just stupid." The 32 signatories "transcended a lot of the traditional (anti-war) lines," says Walt, who admits to disappointment that the Democrat minority in Congress and Democratic presidential candidates, except Howard Dean, have been "very slow off the mark" in backing public dissent over the war.
Non-politicians may fill that gap. MoveOn.org, claiming a membership of more than a million Americans â€” and another 700,000 beyond their borders â€” is running full-page newspaper ads across the U.S. demanding an independent inquiry into the apparently exaggerated need for the Iraq invasion. "It would be a tragedy if young men and women were sent to die for a lie," the ad states below a photo of Bush, tagged "MISleader."
The ad has drawn about half a million replies after its New York Times kickoff last month. MoveOn.org, founded in 1998 by California spouses Joan Blades and Wes Boyd (inventor of the flying toaster screen saver), already has logged more than 1 million e-mails and calls to Congress with protests against the war.
Another national ad campaign has been launched by billionaire George Soros, urging Americans to call Congress and demand a post-war investigation. "When the nation goes to war, the people deserve the truth," the ad states. "American men and women risked and gave their lives for a war based on fighting an imminent threat to homeland security. The case for this war â€” made unequivocally by President Bush and members of his administration â€” rested on intelligence that has been exposed as exaggerated or even false."
Zinni says he has no regrets about challenging the administration, despite the disdain of "senior Pentagon officials."
"I was very, very careful not to say anything once the troops were on the ground. I worried that I would be accused of not supporting them." His father fought in World War I, his cousins in World War II, and his only brother in Korea. "I'm not anti-war."
But his speech last fall at the Middle East Institute in Washington outlined reservations about "the wrong war at the wrong time" against a tyrant "who could be contained." Zinni argued the U.S. risked alienating allies and possibly creating more enemies if it attacked Iraq without multilateral backing and without new proof of weapons of mass destruction. Warning "war should always be a last resort," he appealed for more weapons inspections, United Nations support and better post-war planning. "I wish I was wrong. I don't feel good about it. I would rather be wrong," Zinni says. Still, as evidence appears to mount against the White House, he adds, "Whatever you take to the people, you should be accurate. If there is no imminent threat, if it's not true, then someone should be held accountable."
"It's an obligation you have â€” in our history there have been too many times when generals didn't say what they thought," he says. "We all swear an oath to the Constitution. One of the things I thought I was defending was the right to dissent."
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