Free Speech and Decorum:
Some Thoughts on How We Talk About Terrorism
October 11, 2001
I have been a card-carrying member of the ACLU since I graduated from
college in 1972; a journalist and, therefore almost by definition, an
advocate of untrammeled free speech; a liberal Democrat who has bemoaned
U.S. isolationism and arrogance abroad; and a committed Jew but frequent
critic of Israeli settlement policies on the West Bank.
So why, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, when I received
several e-mails blaming U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East for the
terrorist actions, did I find myself wanting to tell these authors to
As I began to analyze my reaction, I found I quickly had to make an important
distinction: I did notdo notwant to restrict anyones
right to say precisely what they think about the attacks. The United States
has an unfortunate tradition of hemming in free speech when it feels threatened,
starting with the Sedition Act of 1789, which made it a crime to criticize
the government. The Sedition Act of 1918 imposed restrictions on speech
that might hinder enlistment or impede the countys war effort.
The most recent incarnation of this attitude could be heard in President
Bushs press secretarys remarks about a fairly tasteless comment
by political satirist Bill Mahr. "Americans," Ari Fleischer
responded, "should watch what they say."
I don't want this to be a country where the government tells citizens
to "watch what they say." Debate, sometimes raucous debate,
is still a necessary corrective to unwitting blindness and mob mentality.
On the other hand, I think there are ways that we can speak that contribute
to productive dialogue and other ways that make conversation about crucial
issues more difficult.
To me, the immediate leap to explain the attacks in terms of U.S. sins
was just such a conversation stopper. First of all, it smacked of the
same rush to judgment the United States itself was being accused of. If,
as many Bush critics pointed out, the president was too quick to attribute
the crimes to fundamentalist Islamic terrorists, was it not equally premature
to rationalize the attacks by cataloguing U.S. policy failures in the
Second, would any progressive tolerate this kind of blame-the-victim explanation
if it were directed against those who might suffer "collateral damage"
at the hands of the United States? If, for example, our bombing of Afghanistan
kills many noncombatants, few people on the left would find that conduct
justified on the basis of Taliban complicity the World Trade Center attacks.
By the same token, we cannot tell the wife of a busboy at Windows on the
World restaurant or the child of a securities trader at Cantor Fitzgerald
that their loved ones were really at fault for what befell them.
Also, I find myself distrustful of explanations that fall into the "tout
comprendre c'est tout pardonner" line of thinking sometimes attributed
to Madame de Stael. Actually, what she said, "Tout comprendre rend
tres indulgent," translates more accurately as "Under-standing
everything makes one very indulgent." I don't think this is an attitude
we should cultivate vis-a-vis terror. Whatever the motive, the act must
remain, I believe, morally incomprehensible.
Finally, Id like to invoke the classical notion of decorum as a
guide to debating the crucial issues before us. By this I refer to the
idea that the communication ought to fit the occasion. To have American
friends forward me, on September 12, e-mails expressing deep sorrow in
one paragraph but the conviction that the terrorists motivation
was righteous in the secondthis struck me as unseemly in the old-fashioned
sense. Surely even the Great Satan deserves a day or two during which
we do not speak ill of the dead.
We must, of course, take back up the cudgels and urge our country to do
better in the larger world. We should work harder to help carve out a
just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We should try to be
less ignorant and racist and xenophobic. But we should also try to talk
to each other in ways that will promote listening rather than provoke
defensiveness, that will acknowledge the right of Americans to mourn,
unreservedly, the death of their own.
Miriam Schulman is Director of Communications, Markkula Center for
Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University
For more ethical perspectives on the news, click here.