Since Sept. 11, we've been told again and again that our failure to act in a certain way would be the moral equivalent of allowing the terrorists to win. As in: "If we don't get back to work, they win;" or "If we don't go ahead and play football this weekend, they win;" or "If this changes the way we think about Arab-Americans, they win." And, in a way, it's true -- few of us are going to be fighting the battle on the ground in Afghanistan, but there are ways in which we can all do our part. Ways that include resolutely defending values that define our country.
But just as this new military battleground is going to be complicated and risky, so, too, is the one at home. And in the last few days, there is one front where it appears that our enemies might be winning: the First Amendment. To the extent that we give up our fundamental freedoms of expression and dissent, then, yes, "they" have clearly won.
One of those battles is going on right now. It involves Bill Maher, who has been excoriated for what he said on "Politically Incorrect" last week. But excoriation -- a valuable form of free speech -- is not a problem. Censorship is.
Aren't "they" winning when three ABC affiliates, including the Washington, D.C. station, cancel the show?
Aren't "they" winning when networks cave in to rabble-rousing, self-promoting radio shock jocks like Dan Patrick from Houston who started this tempest in a teapot, and who midweek called the show to suggest himself as a guest?
And aren't "they" winning when major sponsors like Federal Express and Sears put a higher price on their corporate image than on the essential democratic ingredient of free speech by pulling their ads? These companies have no problems defending capitalism, but they shrink from defending the values that make it possible.
When the country just learned with such penetrating anguish what real terror is, how can the corporate logo polishers fear Bill Maher? Particularly when the point he was making was such an important one.
So what, exactly, was his point?
In response to conservative guest Dinesh D'Souza's assertion that people who are willing to die in service to their cause, whatever else they may be, are not "cowards," Maher said: "We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly."
I was sitting next to Bill when he said this. And not only did I not object, I wholeheartedly agreed. In fact, in the past, I've made much the same criticism of a foreign policy that obliges our military to fight at great remove from the theater of battle. It was a mistake when we bombed a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan, and it was a mistake when we killed the very Albanian refugees we were trying to protect with our indiscriminate carpet-bombing of Kosovo.
President Bush, himself, has been making much the same point that Bill Maher did: "It will not look like the air war above Kosovo two years ago, where no ground troops were used and not a single American was lost in combat."
Presumably, if Maher had made those same comments on Sept. 10, nobody would have batted an eyelid. But by uttering the same opinion seven days later, he put the very existence of his show at risk.
Have we all gone mad? What becomes of a country when opinions considered perfectly legitimate -- and indeed uttered by hundreds of academics, journalists and members of Congress -- suddenly become a crime worthy of the media death penalty?
If the attacks on innocent American lives end up making us more like our attackers, don't they most spectacularly win? And don't the corporate sponsors, the affiliates, and ABC itself see the inconsistency in the fact that, as a way of showing solidarity against the Taliban, they are using the Taliban's trademark weapon -- the stifling of dissent?
Isn't freedom what we're fighting for? And isn't lack of freedom -- including freedom of the press -- the hallmark of our enemies?
"Cowardly" was the injurious word uttered by Maher. Well, let me use it now where it really belongs -- to describe ABC if it decides to cancel a show that is, after all, called "Politically Incorrect."
The "Politically Incorrect" episode in question was the first since the attack. At curtain time, the entire studio was electric with anxiety. "Politically Incorrect," though it deals with serious subjects is, after all, a satirical program. So we all held our breath as Bill stepped onto the tightrope.
Maher's tone-setting opening comments, which took the place of his usual monologue, were nothing short of brilliant and -- in light of the media firestorm that followed -- remarkably prescient. "I do not relinquish," he said, "nor should any of you, the right to criticize, even as we support, our government. This is still a democracy, and they're still politicians ... Political correctness itself is something we can no longer afford. Feelings are gonna get hurt so that actual people won't, and that will be a good thing." At the end of the show, the audience rose in a standing ovation.
As well as being the host of the show, Bill is my friend. And, as his friend, at that moment, and throughout that show, I was really proud of him. Proud of how perfect a note he had struck between rallying around the flag, showing grief, and expressing dissent. How he had shown that they are not mutually contradictory. And everything that has happened since has only made me prouder of him -- and more disgusted at the politically correct cowards who are trying to stifle him.
We cannot let them succeed, for, as Benjamin Franklin put it, "Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech."