Bully brigade

Limbaugh, Novak and Hannity smack down dissenters: Dare to disagree? You're helping the enemy!

By Brendan Nyhan

Published March 5, 2002 9:06PM (EST)

No one should be surprised by last week's attacks on the legitimacy of criticizing the war on terrorism. Since Sept. 11, pundits and government officials have repeatedly attempted to suppress dissent by arguing it helps the enemy. While the attacks on Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and other Democrats were widely repudiated over the weekend, efforts to stifle open political debate continue and may even grow, following a U.S.-led attack in Afghanistan that left at least nine Americans dead Monday.

Last Thursday, Daschle suggested that while the war on terrorism has been very successful thus far, further success "is still somewhat in doubt" and will be measured in part by whether the United States captures Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar. This prompted a firestorm of criticism from Republicans attacking the legitimacy of Daschle's statement rather than the issues he raised. Most notably, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., issued a "Red Alert" press bulletin, stating "How dare Senator Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism, especially when we have troops in the field," and Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said Daschle's "divisive comments have the effect of giving aid and comfort to our enemies by allowing them to exploit divisions in our country."

Pundits from across the political spectrum condemned these attacks and defended Daschle's right to question the conduct of the war this weekend. On CNN's "Novak, Hunt & Shields," Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "They're raising questions. And I think that's what a loyal opposition does." In addition, the Washington Post fiercely condemned Lott, saying the United States "would be a weaker country if Sen. Lott succeeded in choking off debate."

Still, Lott was unbowed, saying on NBC's "Meet the Press" that "any sign that we are losing that unity, or crack in that support, will be, I think, used against us overseas." Lott also refused to disavow Davis' comments, saying he "wouldn't put it the way" Davis did but "we all have to speak our own mind."

This episode is actually only the latest in a string of attacks on dissenters since the war on terrorism began. The only thing different about the situation now is that politicians and pundits are finally starting to seriously defend critics' rights to make their remarks.

Immediately after Sept. 11, Andrew Sullivan suggested that leftists would "mount what amounts to a fifth column" and later attacked the putative "fifth column" as "the enemy within the West itself." Like Lott, Sullivan suggested that opposing or questioning the war aids terrorists, though he later disavowed "the shorthand of 'fifth column.'" Michael Kelly adopted a similar argument from George Orwell's writings during World War II, arguing that American pacifists "are on the side of future mass murders of Americans" and are "objectively pro-terrorist." Both arguments depend on nonrational reasoning that equates opposition to a preferred policy with an endorsement of an enemy's objectives.

The most infamous example of this kind of rhetoric, however, came in December, when Attorney General John Ashcroft bullied his critics into silence during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing:

"We need honest, reasoned debate; not fear mongering. To those who pit Americans against immigrants, and citizens against noncitizens; to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists -- for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil."

Ashcroft was condemned fairly widely in the press, but he was able to shut down most direct congressional criticism of the administration's plans for military tribunals and its detentions of suspected terrorists.

Things have been quieter this year because criticism of the war from the left has largely subsided, but any serious challenge to the administration's war policies is still met with disturbingly irrational rhetoric. Last month, syndicated pundit Oliver North and radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh smeared Daschle for briefly questioning Bush's "axis of evil" formulation. Limbaugh told his radio audience that, "[i]n essence, Daschle has chosen to align himself with the axis of evil," while North claimed that Daschle "has now joined Ted Turner and the Ayatollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin, who are people who don't like the term 'axis of evil.'" North also alleged Daschle was "setting the ground works for our adversaries to take on American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines."

Today, despite the criticism Lott and Davis have received, several pundits are keeping up the attack. Here's what pundit Robert Novak said on CNN's "Crossfire" Friday:

"Barbara Krull sends me an e-mail saying, 'It is patriotic to debate foreign policy, especially when we have troops on the ground whose lives depend on our making sound policy.' Barbara, it was people like you who undermined our forces in the Vietnam War and brought Communist tyranny to a country that doesn't deserve it."

Similarly, the New York Post wondered Saturday whether Daschle and other Democrats would "trash" the principle that says you "don't encourage the enemy by appearing to be divided." And Sean Hannity of Fox News Channel's "Hannity and Colmes" said on Friday's show that Daschle "is communicating to our enemies that this nation is divided, that we lack resolve and that we have forgotten Sept. 11." Again, Novak, the Post and Hannity are using vague and reductionist reasoning to claim, like Lott and Davis, that dissent aids terrorists.

From Sullivan and Kelly in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks to Novak and Hannity today, assaults on the legitimacy of dissent itself have dominated much of the debate over the war on terrorism. Now, as President Bush moves toward a dramatic expansion of the conflict, a serious debate is necessary. As David Brooks of the Weekly Standard said on PBS's Newshour with Jim Lehrer, "It seems to me a debate the Republicans should be eager to have and not try to stifle." The American public has been very supportive of the war thus far; it deserves an open debate on the next phase.

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Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is a political scientist currently serving as a RWJ Scholar in Health Policy Research at the University of Michigan.

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