Is it Anti-American to be Anti-War?

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March 09, 2003|By Interviews by Jonathan Pitts | Interviews by Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

-- First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Love it, loathe it or tune it out, AM talk radio has developed an impact as weighty as the once-ample frame of its biggest star. Rush Limbaugh, the self-described "doctor of democracy," has built an audience of 20 million, spooked liberal foes and, quite possibly, changed the shape of politics by framing, as vividly as anyone, the questions we all must face if we are to keep refining our identity as Americans. So it mattered last month when Limbaugh, holding forth on anti-war rallies around the world, raised the stakes in midsentence. "I want to say something about these anti-war demonstrators," he said. "No, let's not mince words. Let's call them what they are: anti-American demonstrators." With that, he had questioned the motives -- and patriotism -- of hundreds of thousands who had taken to the streets to exercise their right to question their government.

The "anti-American" charge is not new -- nor, historically, is it fruitless. It has sparked debate as far back as the Revolutionary War, self-examination as useful today as it was in the earliest days of the Republic. What are the duties of a good American at a moment of national crisis? Is it more patriotic to question a looming war or to line up behind it? Who makes that decision, and when?

Norman Thomas, a longtime Socialist activist who opposed the war in Vietnam, said his fellow protesters should have washed the Stars and Stripes, not set it afire. Yet in a country so resilient it protects even flag-burning as free speech, is any dissent unpatriotic?

America may be no better than the conversations its citizens hold. As U.S. forces gathered around Iraq this past week, seven people who make free speech their living discussed these and other issues with The Sun -- celebrating our liberties by hashing out, as Limbaugh would have it, what it really means to be an American.

What follows are excerpts of those conversations.

Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of The Jewish Exponent magazine in Philadelphia. In a recent article, he argues that "if powerful forces in the Arab/Islamic world are at war with America and all it represents, they can't hide behind sovereignty anymore."

No matter how odious the cause might be, the right to dissent is sacred. Period. When protesters openly side with armed combatants opposing American forces in the field, such dissenters forfeit the sympathy of most Americans. But anything short of actually materially aiding our nation's enemies (the Constitutional definition of treason) is protected speech.

That said, I think those who make excuses for Saddam Hussein and oppose the spread of democracy are out of tune with American values. I wouldn't label them "anti-American." But I do think they are dead wrong.

In the cases of both Vietnam War protesters and today's protesters, those who oppose war do so for diverse reasons. Most Americans who opposed the Vietnam War did so because they saw it as a war that America didn't need to fight and wasn't fighting to win. At the same time, a small leftist cadre went further and openly rooted for the North Vietnamese. I'm referring to Students for a Democratic Society and all the vile, old-left, new-left Maoist bunch that has been discredited since then. ANSWER is a vestige of that crew. One might guess that the leadership of the current protesters also takes the side of America's opponents, while many who attend the demonstrations do so with more mainstream motives.

The point the Vietnam and Iraq protest movements have in common is their unwillingness to face the consequences of not fighting a cruel and tyrannical enemy. Many Vietnam protesters still haven't come to terms with the fact that, however flawed South Vietnam might have been - and the fact that 50,000 American lives should not have been sacrificed without reason - America's failure in Vietnam allowed that country to sink into the grip of a Stalinist dictatorship which took the lives of countless thousands in "re-education" camps. Today's protesters are similarly blind about Saddam Hussein.

It would be unwise to overlook the fact that the leadership of today's organized anti-war movement is extremist in nature - for instance, the way that leadership is allied with, and in many cases part of, a mindset that views terrorism against Israelis and Jews as defensible. The anti-Zionist tone of their comments is, in many cases, indistinguishable from anti-Semitism and is rooted in the same sources. The far left in this country, like the extreme right, has adopted anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic rhetoric and beliefs.

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