Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Free Speech and Decorum:
Some Thoughts on How We Talk About Terrorism

By Miriam Schulman
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 shut up?

As I began to analyze my reaction, I found I quickly had to make an important distinction: I did not—do not—want to restrict anyone’s 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 county’s war effort.

The most recent incarnation of this attitude could be heard in President Bush’s press secretary’s 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 Muslim world?

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, I’d 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 second—this 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

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