- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 10, 2001

It was a California senator named Hiram Johnson who coined the quotable quote: "The first casualty when war comes is truth." That was during World War I. These days, the second casualty seems to be free speech.

Just ask Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from the liberal Berkeley and Oakland, Calif., area. She has been accompanied by security guards after representing her constituencies as she thought best. Death threats followed her lone vote against congressional authorization for the president to use force to retaliate for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

I would not have voted as she did but I respect her principled stand. It makes me proud as an American to fight for her right to vote against our fighting.

But the emotions surrounding the horrendous attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have only been magnified by our national frustration. In the absence of a distinct enemy to pursue, many of us have lashed out at each other.

My column-writing colleague Dan Guthrie at the Grants Pass, Ore., Daily Courier was fired after he wrote that President Bush was an "embarrassment" for "hiding in a Nebraska hole" on the day of the terrorist attacks.

The paper also apologized for the column. So did the Texas City Sun after it fired columnist Tom Gutting for a piece titled "Bush has failed to lead U.S."

Sorry, guys. I guess you didn't get the word that criticism of President Bush suddenly was off-limits, at least during the early days of our national trauma. The reverence shown for Mr. Bush since the attacks, even by "Saturday Night Live" and some editorial cartoonists, shows how difficult it has been for Americans to laugh again, especially at their political leadership.

But, is if to show that it is not just liberal voices that catch heat, conservative commentator Ann Coulter lost National Review as a customer for her column after she, too, became a little too politically incorrect. Her offense was to write about the terrorists that "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."

Gee, tell us how you really feel, Ann.

Bill Maher's ABC-TV comedy show "Politically Incorrect" lost some television stations and some advertisers, at least for a few days, after he referred to military missile strikes as more "cowardly" than suicidal hijackers of airplanes.

"We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away," he argued.

As for the suicidal hijackers? "Say what you want about it," he said, "it's not cowardly."

Mr. Maher apologized in a later show to those who were offended by his remarks. But they were not much different from those that respected intellectual Susan Sontag used in the New Yorker: " if the word cowardly is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of [Septembers] slaughter, they were not cowards."

Personally, I don't agree with Mr. Maher or Miss Sontag on this point any more than I would support Miss Coulter's apparent call for a Christian jihad against Muslims.

I definitely would not call the suicidal hijackers courageous. I call them what Lenin is said to have called apologists for the Soviet Union: "Useful idiots."

And I don't criticize our use of missiles against terrorists as cowardly; I criticize it for being ineffective.

For example, after 241 U.S. Marines were killed by a suicide bomber in Beirut in 1983, the Reagan administration retaliated with shells fired from the battleship USS New Jersey into the hills where terrorists were holed up. By all accounts, the bombardment did nothing more than enhance the terrorists' image among their supporters.

A similar result benefited Osama bin Laden when President Clinton fired missiles into the terrorist's training camps in Afghanistan in August 1998.

But, whether I agree with Miss Sontag or Mr. Maher or the rest, I think their right to speak freely is essential to the success of what Miss Sontag calls "a mature democracy." As the initial shock and grief from Sept. 11 wears off, so, I suspect, will the second honeymoon that the public and press seem to have granted the Bush administration.

We have seen in previous wars that the American public always gives free rein and full support to an administration in the early days of war. It is only after weeks and months go by with little or no progress that the criticism becomes vocal. The same public that, in the early days, calls on the media to be cooperative, even compliant and supportive of the government, will suddenly turn and demand that we become more aggressively investigative and critical.

The elder President Bush was able to complete the Persian Gulf war quickly before the window of public support closed. For now, we Americans have been willing to give his son's administration the benefit of the doubt, too.

But that benefit won't last forever. If the first casualty of war is the truth, a later casualty is patience.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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