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Thursday, April 24, 2003 02:20 pm

Unequal time

art40
Dissent gets no respect

Over the last month, local news has bristled with nasty swipes at any and all who publicly opposed the war with Iraq. There's a sad, wide gulf between the two groups who have followed the event most closely, who track every bootstep and weep for each life lost on the battlefield.

Despite reporters' shorthand, nobody is "pro-war," except the crazed or the crassest profiteers. As for understanding those in the protest camp--certainly it must be possible to have complaints about the war and compassion for the warriors.

Hundreds gathered near the Old State Capitol several weeks ago for a "support our troops" rally. Most of those quoted in the press worried that soldiers only saw war protests and "never the ones supporting them," as Edwina Nally put it in the State Journal-Register. Apparently Nally and others think protesters were disingenuous when they expressed support for the troops.

Youngsters also were featured in the coverage. Some wore flag-print clothing and held photos of relatives on active military duty. But when kids show up in stories on war protests, their parents stand accused, according to S J-Rletter writer Kathy D. Joyce, of being like Saddam Hussein. She contends kids are used at demonstrations to discourage arrests, just as Hussein used innocents as human shields.

Patriotism is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. Yet, in its highest form, patriotism comes out of sincere concern. It's not about flying a bigger flag, or castigating everyone who doesn't parrot the presidential line. Patriotism may require sacrifice for the common good. Soldiers may pay the ultimate price in battle, and protestors face hostility to stand up for what they genuinely believe their nation should do. Dissent is our birthright--and our birthmark. The U.S. was conceived in liberty, because people dared to break their chains. To make dissent un-American is to walk backward on the road to freedom, until our only right is the right to remain silent.

Sadly, President Bush's words emboldened those who savage protesters. He quite clearly did not find democracy in the millions who marched against his attack on Iraq--only delusion. Media made it worse, but not by partisan intent. Here's how: If you favored administration policy, you needed to only say, "I'm with the President!"--everyone knew what you meant because Bush and his minions were on the news 23 hours a day. But if you didn't follow the leader, there was no easy sound bite to drive home your point. To make an equal impact, the media would need to offer you more time.

On average, television gives people less than ten seconds to explain their positions. That's down 75 percent from 25 years ago. If statements of dissent must be preceded by pledges of support for the troops and deep patriotic stirrings, the time has run out. Imagine if fairness mattered: Many people supporting an attack on a sovereign nation would have to say, of course they want peace, and, yes, their government is capable of error, and, yes, a great lesson of the 20th century was that following orders is no excuse, but . . .

A couple of months ago, some Springfieldians had asked the City Council to do what about a hundred other towns had already done--pass a resolution against the U.S. launching a pre-emptive strike on Iraq without more evidence of that country's manufacturing weapons of mass destruction. But an explosion of voices claimed that Springfield's aldermen had no business meddling in U.S. foreign policy. When the elder Bush whacked Iraq a baker's dozen years ago, this city proudly passed a resolution endorsing his actions. Back then no one complained about the council dabbling in world affairs. Too bad no reporter pointed out that contradiction when the hue and cry went up in February.

By mid-March, once the shooting started, there were many calls in the media for demonstrators to put aside their placards for the sake of national unity. But as soon as demonstration numbers dipped, there were stories about the waning of the peace movement.

Letters to the editor of the S J-R revealed how rabid the anti-protesters had become. Pity poor Traci Pitchford. All she suggested, in a gentle letter, was there may be more enduring tributes to our troops than all those yard signs that may be technically illegal. In response, local Army National Guard Sergeant Paul Byers suggested "maybe you should go live in Communist China," while another reader concluded, "Traci has never known anyone who has served in the military or fought in a war." And all this because she favored the U.S. flag over cardboard.

Also from Doug Kamholz

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