This is clearly the wrong time to say the wrong thing.
In the wake of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we've seen some extraordinary public stumbles, quickly followed by calls of condemnation and a flurry of apologies. In the past three weeks alone:
- Immediately after the attack, Jerry Falwell suggested in an appearance on "The 700 Club" that liberal organizations bore some responsibility for the attacks. He said, "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way all of them who have tried to secularize America I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.' " Falwell later apologized.
- Rep. John Cooksey, R-La., made some astonishing remarks in the wake of the attack. "If I see someone comes in that's got a diaper on his head and a fan belt wrapped around the diaper on his head, that boy needs to be pulled over," he said.
After widespread criticism, Cooksey issued a boilerplate apology: "If I offended Arab-Americans, I regret my choice of words."
- Bill Maher, the host of "Politically Incorrect," lived up to the show's title in an on-air discussion of whether the terrorists who flew the planes were cowards. Maher contrasted their actions with the U.S. practice of long-range aerial attacks. "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away," he said. "That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building say what you want about it, it's not cowardly." Maher later apologized, saying: "In no way was I intending to say, nor have I ever thought, that the men and women who defend our nation in uniform are anything but courageous and valiant, and I offer my apologies to anyone who took it wrong," Maher said.
While there were no audible gasps when Maher made his comments, talk radio helped fuel a firestorm of complaints. At least 17 TV stations suspended the show, with some pointing out that it was their First Amendment right to do so. In legal terms, that was certainly true, but surely these station managers understand the First Amendment was expressly designed to protect unpopular speech.
While a backlash for a stupid public comment certainly isn't rare, there seems to be a special intensity to these attacks. Even the White House chimed in about Maher.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer denounced the TV host, saying, "There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and that this is not a time for remarks like that. … It never is." The White House later insisted Fleischer's cautionary words also were directed toward Cooksey.
Critics of Jerry Falwell sought to punish him by canceling basketball tournaments at his Liberty University. The Virginia High School League has asked its executive director to look for an alternate site.
Of course, there is a fairly obvious explanation for this intensified assault on unpopular speech. It all comes down to fear.
Americans are both unsettled by the events of the past month and frustrated by our collective inability to immediately avenge these crimes. Clumsy congressmen and unthinking talk-show hosts are tempting targets.
When President Bush spoke to the nation on Sept. 20, he told us that freedom and fear were at war.
He specifically noted that terrorist organizations hate the United States because of our freedoms. They "hate … our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."
That may well be true, but that war between freedom and fear has a flip side. Fear can short-circuit freedom. We can become so concerned about security that we lose sight of the values our nation cherishes most.
In a nation founded on free speech, we have every right to verbally lambaste the Falwells, Mahers and Cookseys of this world. But when we seek to punish them by kicking them off the air or canceling basketball tournaments, we betray our fear.
If it's important as Ari Fleischer suggested to watch what we say, it's just as important to watch what we don't say.
America is about robust voices, about people confidently sharing their views and contributing to the marketplace of ideas. Exercising our right to say what we want no matter how provocative or controversial is true to the American spirit.
We can't be afraid to be free.