Loose lips

Thomas Sowell

10/11/2001 12:00:00 AM - Thomas Sowell

SOME of the intelligentsia are yelling louder than ever that they are being silenced. Professors, journalists and others who have made grossly offensive remarks in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attack are shocked that other Americans are criticizing them for it. To them, apparently, free speech means being free of criticism by others who want to exercise their own free speech rights.

As the Chronicle of Higher Education -- the trade publication of academia -- put it, "professors across the country have found their freedom to speak hemmed in by incensed students, alumni, and university officials." Apparently none of these people has a right to be incensed or to express their reactions to the profs.

The self-righteousness of those who want to be exempt from criticism is incredible. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, events "have left emotions so raw that people are struggling to think critically about what happened -- and some administrators would prefer that professors not even try."

Thinking critically? When a professor at the University of New Mexico makes a joke approving the attack on the Pentagon, is that thinking critically -- or thinking at all? At one of the California State campuses, a professor who said that American actions had helped bring on the terrorist attacks was "shocked by the anger his remarks prompted."

Even the Chronicle of Higher Education, while characterizing these responses as "part of the American impulse toward anti-intellectualism" has to admit that "no one has been fired or locked up for joking about bombs or criticizing President Bush." All that has happened is that others have asserted their own rights of free speech. But even that is said to have a "chilling effect." As one professor at the university of Texas put it, the message from the academic administration was "if you stick your neck out, we will disown you."

Apparently other people don't even have a right to disassociate themselves from your remarks. Apparently anything short of uncritical acceptance of whatever asinine statements the profs make seems to them like a violation of the First Amendment.

This seeking of privileges in the name of rights extends far beyond the campuses. Journalists have been wrapping themselves in the First Amendment for years -- even as they assume the role of citizens of the world, who soar above the parochial concerns of the United States of America. One of the cable networks doesn't want its employees to use the word "terrorists" to describe those who launched an attack that killed thousands of American civilians. Various media outlets apparently feel a need to give equal time, if not moral equivalence, to Osama bin Laden and others in the terrorist organizations.

Would anyone have thought of giving Hitler free time to broadcast his propaganda on networks during World War II?

The most unconscionable media act of all may well have been the banner headline on the front of the New York Times of October 10th: "U.S. Said to Plan Copter Raids in Afghanistan." The Times' motto is "All the News That's Fit to Print." But, while reporting what has happened is news, reporting what is about to happen with American troops in a military operation is more like espionage.

Nor is this the first time that the media have been reckless with the lives of fellow Americans in combat. During the Gulf War a decade ago, one of the reporters on the scene broadcast to the world that the Iraqi missiles being fired at American troops were missing and landing "five miles north of here." That is the kind of information that an enemy needs to adjust his range. It is the kind of information which spies and spotters are supposed to provide. But here it was being supplied free of charge.

Perhaps that is what to expect from journalists who claim all the privileges of Americans, while acting as citizens of the world, neutral as between "both sides." Since they are so totally incapable of self-criticism, the rest of us should at least understand the implications of their self-indulgence.

There are American troops who can die needlessly in combat, and American children who can grow up as orphans, because somebody forgot the old wartime maxim, "Loose lips sink ships." There is great consternation in the press and in Congress that President Bush has ordered stricter limits on who gets military briefings. But it is reassuring that irresponsible people will now have adult supervision.