Comfort And The Protesters

Editorials And Opinion, The New York Sun, February 6, 2003

Since 9/11 we have documented many instances in which pundits and politicians have tried to demonize dissent, suggesting that it is unpatriotic and even that it aids the enemy. But none has gone so far as to suggest an actual prosecution for treason simply for voicing one's political views -until now.

In an editorial yesterday (Feb. 7), the editors of the New York Sun, a conservative newspaper founded last year, call on New York City to obstruct a protest against a potential war in Iraq for as long as possible and to monitor the protestors for "an eventual treason prosecution." This breathtaking article is a direct attack on the free speech rights of every American.

The Sun begins with this paean to obstruction of the constitutional right to political protest:

Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly are doing the people of New York and the people of Iraq a great service by delaying and obstructing the anti-war protest planned for February 15.

The longer they delay in granting the protesters a permit, the less time the organizers have to get their turnout organized, and the smaller the crowd is likely to be. And we wouldn't want to overstate the matter, but, at some level, the smaller the crowd, the more likely that President Bush will proceed with his plans to liberate Iraq. And the more likely, in that case, that the Iraqi people will be freed and the citizens of New York will be rescued from the threat of an Iraqi-aided terrorist attack.

As the Sun goes on to say, the city objects not to the demonstration itself, but to the demonstrators' plan to "march down First Avenue near the United Nations," which would obstruct traffic and require police protection. But the editors' logic is clear -- irrespective of these factors, it is desirable to obstruct free speech rights in order to advance a particular political cause. No matter that public officials are obligated not to discriminate between groups in this way. This shows a willful disregard for the legal principles of free speech, though the editors grudgingly concede later in the piece that the demonstrators "probably" have a right to hold their protest.

But "[s]o long as the protesters are invoking the Constitution," the Sun continues, "they might have a look at Article III," which provides a legal definition of treason, including the requirement of two witnesses for a treason prosecution. How is the protest in any way relevant to treason?

Check out this pseudo-logic: "There can be no question at this point that Saddam Hussein is an enemy of America... And there is no reason to doubt that the 'anti-war' protesters -- we prefer to call them protesters against freeing Iraq -- are giving, at the very least, comfort to Saddam Hussein."

Do conservatives who oppose invading North Korea give comfort to Kim Jong Il? Or what about those who opposed the NATO intervention against Serbia - did their position necessarily give "aid and comfort" to Slobodan Milosevic? Of course not. There are many horrible anti-American regimes and dictators in the world. Opposing an intervention against one is neither "aid" nor "comfort"; it is a legitimate expression of democratic views about US foreign policy. To suggest otherwise is simply an attempt to stigmatize dissent. But the Sun is not content to merely hint that opponents of an invasion of Iraq are treasonous. It states this accusation outright based on its two-part syllogism above:

So the New York City police could do worse, in the end, than to allow the protest and send two witnesses along for each participant, with an eye toward preserving at least the possibility of an eventual treason prosecution. Thus fully respecting not just some, but all of the constitutional principles at stake. Even White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who has seen fit to try to intimidate critics of the administration in the past, called protests against the war patriotic during his White House briefing yesterday:

It is emphatically a patriotic act for people to protest on behalf of whatever cause they see fit in our country. And if some differ with the President and call for the use of no force and take to the streets peacefully to protest that, that's the finest tradition of America. It's not new. It's been the way the American people communicate with their government for hundreds of years. We settle our differences in this country through elections and through peaceful protest.

With war looming and commentators like Ann Coulter peddling treason accusations in her syndicated column and an upcoming book, we must take a stand against the use of such tactics. Treason is one of the most serious accusations imaginable. It must not be used to poison political debate.


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