The dangers of silencing disagreement

A Texas journalist speaks out after being fired for criticizing President Bush.

By Tom Gutting

Published October 1, 2001 8:29PM (EDT)

In his address to the nation Sept. 20, President Bush warned the country that recent terrorist attacks would force all Americans to make sacrifices. I didn't realize how quickly my turn would come.

Two days after the president's speech, I used my regular column for the Texas City Sun to raise some doubts about the quality of his leadership. There was loud public outcry, and I was fired. What has happened to me as an individual isn't important. I'll be fine, though I am less naove about the commitment of editors and publishers to the ideals of free speech. It is important, however, for Americans to reflect on the dangers of silencing disagreement.

During the past three weeks, there has been a great deal of talk about what it means to be an American. Citizens and leaders in our country have stood united, waved flags and sung "God Bless America."

Being American, however, means more than simple shows of patriotism. The strength of our nation does not come from flying the flag, but rather from our unique set of ideals. Especially in times of crisis, it is important for Americans to adhere to the principles that have made us the flag bearer of democracy to the world.

That's why recent strong reactions against dissenting voices across the country have been so alarming. Granted, this is a time of unusually strong American unity. The crisis has given President Bush what his election did not: a mandate.

But as George Washington once said, "Government is not reason, it is not eloquence -- it is a force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action." Irresponsible action is a particular threat when vigilant critics are silenced. It is our obligation to freely debate the direction our country and our leaders are taking. The beauty of the republic comes from diversity of opinion, not unity of thought. If we squash debate, we crush the sacred duty of our citizens.

Many think constraints on public debate are part of the necessary tradeoff between freedom and security, equating searches of airline passengers with censoring columnists. But except in the most extreme cases, such as revealing important government secrets or explicitly inciting rebellion, there is no gain to our security from restraining speech. The citizens of Texas City would not be more secure today if my column had not been printed.

In fact, the outraged citizens of Texas City are better off because my column appeared. If my criticisms of Bush were right, they heard a truth they needed to hear. But even if I was wrong, the fact that I spoke out makes the truths I contested stronger. John Stuart Mill had it right: "Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right."

To be convinced of our beliefs, we must hold them up against the strongest arguments of those who disagree with us. If, after putting our views to the test, we still believe them, our principles will be all the more founded and strong.

America today is under the world microscope more than ever, and that means it is more important than ever to adhere to our ideals. In my case, this turned out to mean losing my job. I'm happy to have been able to answer the president's call for sacrifice.

Tom Gutting

Tom Gutting is a Texas writer.

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