“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.