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Freedom fries with your jingoism

What are the limits of speech during war?

They range from the silly to the serious.

The silly you know about: Ohio Republican representative Bob Ney ordered that “French fries” be removed from House cafeteria menus and replaced with “freedom fries.” French toast? Forget it. (If Canada doesn’t shape up might Congress soon add “Freedom Bacon” as a side order?)

More serious: In Albany, N.Y. earlier this month, 60-year-old Stephen Downs ran afoul of shopping mall security by wearing a T-shirt bearing the unpatriotic slogans “Peace on Earth” and “Give Peace a Chance.” Downs was asked to remove the shirt or leave the mall. He refused. Local cops arrested him for trespassing. The charges, thankfully, were dropped.

More serious still: Demonstrating more profile than courage, presidential contender and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry said he will mute his criticism of President Bush once war begins. Self-censorship, Kerry told The Boston Globe, is “what you owe the troops.”

One legislator who didn’t measure her words is now paying the price for it. Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur had the temerity to compare al-Qaeda terrorists with Vermont’s Revolutionary War-era Green Mountain Boys. “One could say that Osama bin Laden and these non-nation-state fighters with religious purpose are very similar to those kinds of atypical revolutionaries that helped to cast off the British crown,” Kaptur told the Toledo Blade.

Kaptur was condemned from the left and from the right on CNN’s “Crossfire” and became a target of radio loudmouth Rush Limbaugh. The easily excitable House Majority Leader Tom Delay said he was “outraged” at her comments, while National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Thomas Reynolds said Kaptur was “equating Osama bin Laden with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and our other founding fathers.”

A little history: Fighting under Ethan Allen, the Green Mountain Boys are most remembered for taking Fort Ticonderoga from the sleeping British in 1775. They took the fort “in the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.”

The boys were a thuggish group, vigilantes at heart, initially formed to prevent the New York colony from annexing parts of present-day Vermont.

Kaptur is guilty, it is true, of making obscure historical references. And that’s a dangerous practice for a politician in our sound bite driven political culture. But her comments were offensive only to the easily offended or ignorant, to those whose patriotism requires willful disregard of U.S. history, or to opponents who see the 11-term member of Congress as vulnerable in the 2004 election.

The larger point is that anyone who tries to understand who and why we fight, and has the gall to say it aloud, is suspect.

When the bombs start dropping on Baghdad, President Bush’s poll numbers will reach new highs as Americans rally around the flag. Surrounded by a fawning media and an adoring public, the commander-in-chief will take on previously undemonstrated characteristics of wisdom and courage.

That’s exactly the time citizens and their leaders need to challenge this administration, which has set this country on a foolhardy course. The last thing America needs as it moves toward war is censorship -- whether it’s self-imposed (see John Kerry), thuggishly demanded (hear Limbaugh and Delay), or criminally enforced (witness Stephen Downs).

When the troops move in, the truth moves out.

It takes one form of courage to fight wars, another to oppose them. And citizens have a right to oppose them.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003