Dissent or sedition

W. Thomas Smith, Jr
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Posted: Apr 24, 2006 2:25 PM

“I hate Bill Clinton,” my now 17-year-old nephew Michael told me (when he was only eight). It was an offhand remark by a child, who today is far more politically savvy than many adults twice his age. But his comment then surprised me.

“Why do you hate President Clinton?” I asked him.

“Because he’s a bad president,” Michael responded.

Though I wasn’t a fan of Clinton either, I corrected him quick; telling him that Clinton was president of the United States. I also explained to him that though we all have a right – even an obligation – to challenge elected officials whom we believe are erring in a manner violating the common good; it is ungentlemanly and unladylike to speak disrespectfully or contemptuously about the office or the office-holder. It can also be dangerous for the country, though I didn’t get into that with my nephew at the time.

Michael didn’t actually know whether or not Clinton was a “bad president,” or why that might have meant he was supposed to “hate” him. It was just something he picked up from an adult and misconstrued in his own little mind.

Of course we adults do talk about the man in the Oval Office, but it should be done in the spirit of tactful discourse and substantive debate; and – when in time of war – without encouraging and emboldening any real or potential enemies. Those four words, “in time of war,” should not be taken lightly.

The vitriol leveled against Clinton during his administration was tasteless, to be sure. But the attacks against Bush (a commander-in-chief in time of war) and his chief lieutenants, have not only soiled the grounds of common decency; they may well have crossed over from general dissent into the realm of sedition.

Of course, the 1st Amendment is precious to us all, dissent has value, and a charge of sedition today does not have the same punitive bite it once had. As a lawyer friend explained to me, one man’s free speech is another man’s sedition, and vice versa.

So when does dissent become sedition? Are they one in the same? What’s the difference between sedition and treason? These are questions I’ve bandied about recently, as our politically polarized nation has split even further on issues of Iraq and the global war on terror, Iran, nuclear proliferation, port and border security, immigration, race relations, procedures for collecting intelligence, and then 360-degrees back to Iraq.

My 1996 Webster’s unabridged defines sedition as “incitement of discontent or rebellion against a government” and “any action, especially in speech or writing, promoting such discontent or rebellion.” I also opened a 1903 copy of Ogilvie’s Student’s English Dictionary, and found sedition to be, “such offenses against the state as have the like tendency with, but do not amount to treason.”

Both definitions are a mouthful, so let’s boil them down: Sedition is the act of inciting discontent against a government. It parallels treason, but does not quite rise to that level.

Now let’s look at some examples of “speech or writing” designed to incite discontent:

One of the latest is an article from the online edition of Vanity Fair, wherein veteran journalist Carl Bernstein calls for “Senate hearings on Bush, Now.”

Another is a Yahoo! News exclusive by cartoonist Ted Rall, who – after reading Seymour Hersh’s latest in The New Yorker – shrieks, “DON'T IMPEACH BUSH. COMMIT HIM.”

Then there is Congressman John Conyers and his recent call to investigate and possibly impeach the president. Conyers does so with a laundry list of allegations against Bush including, “encouraging and countenancing torture.”

Of course, politicians love to incite and inflame. But what have we devolved into when a U.S. Congressman may – with all of his influence, with impunity and without any substantive proof whatsoever – suggest that a wartime president is responsible for torturing human beings?

Conyers (the same guy who called for President Reagan’s impeachment for the 1983 invasion of Grenada) is a hero at – and has written for – antiwar.com, the infamous e-rag whose writers have referred to the Secretary of Defense as “Don ‘Personally Involved in Torture’ Rumsfeld,” and the Bush administration as “having an empire so corrupt and murderous that many folks are considering impeaching and removing the president who lied us into war and claims unlimited authority to wiretap, kidnap, torture, and murder whomever he likes – his lawyers even insist that the ‘commander in chief’ has the ‘inherent’ and ‘plenary’ authority to crush a child's testicles to get at the boy’s father.”

Lovely.

Then we all know about the handful of attention-seeking schoolteachers and professors who are – figuratively speaking – inciting to action their highly impressionable, captive audiences. And, of course, our six retired generals – out of nearly 5,000 (not including reserve retired) – calling for Secretary Rumsfeld’s resignation.

In a phone conversation last week, Lt. General John Bruce Blount – former chief of staff of Allied Forces Southern Europe – told me that criticism from the ranks of retired generals is not a new phenomenon.

“But it’s a very bad idea for these six to politicize their complaining at this time,” said the retired U.S. Army three-star. “Frankly, their complaints are much ado about nothing. I haven’t heard one of them come up with any clear example of what Rumsfeld did that was so onerous.”

He added, “I can tell you, the troops aren’t happy about this.”

What rises to the level of sedition is debatable. What is irrefutable, however, is that the aforementioned anti-Bush, anti-Rumsfeld rhetoric inflames the passions of those who do not understand the big picture in the war on terror (including operations in Iraq). And inflaming, not debating, is exactly what that rhetoric is intended to do.

Worse, that same rhetoric also encourages the likes of Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al Zarqawi. I can’t say for sure if such rhetoric is spewed to deliberately encourage terrorists, but it doesn’t take much to realize it does encourage our enemies.

Carol A. Taber, president of Family Security Matters – a New Jersey-based organization that provides public information and solutions concerning national security – is disturbed by the fact that America’s enemies are being comforted, even inspired, by what she calls the vocal “hysteria” and over-the-top bashing of the current administration.

In a recent conversation, Taber told me that, though honest debate is important for our country, when it is infused with “vitriol and emotion,” America’s enemies perceive that as “one more example of how flaccid our country is, and thus worthy of utter destruction. If Americans understood the truth about this enemy, they would know that the enemy sees the ultra-Left in our country as their single best hope to prevail.”

Considering what the terrorists will derive benefit from; the question remains as to where we draw the line between free speech and sedition. Perhaps – as Taber reminds me – the answer can be found in the words of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (son of the famous writer), who in 1919 said, “When a nation is at war many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight and that no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right.”

Unfortunately, such a voice of reason from the 20th-century would fall only on ears now deafened by the unreasonable caterwauling of the 21st.