Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
July 11, 2020

Protesters simply exercise right to free speech

By Jessica Valdez | October 4, 2001

Protesters swarmed throughout Washington, D.C. last weekend in a passionate struggle to assuage the rising tides of war, only to be confronted by fellow American citizens holding signs that read, "Welcome Traitors."

The word "traitor" has not been the only term applied to those against militaristic action. As patriotism rockets amid the fervor for conflict, anti-war protesters have been pelted with hateful adjectives, such as "pro-terrorist," "evil" or even "un-American." Known for his involvement in the Iran-contra scandal, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North even went so far as to call the protesters "indecent" during his speech for the Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium at the Johns Hopkins University. Were protesters forced to see the Pentagon in its current state, said North, perhaps they would have more compassion.

Is it really a lack of compassion that drives protesters to oppose militaristic conflict and further death?

As tension escalates, it is essential that Americans avoid prejudice and maintain respect for those of differing viewpoints. Whether one agrees with them or not, one must openly accept protesters' right to declare their opinions without immediately denigrating them as un-American. We cannot allow our anger to blind us to the legitimacy of some of the protesters' claims and their right to protest.

The exercise of our constitutional rights is anything but "indecent" - in fact, it's very American. In his speech to Congress on Sept. 20, President Bush claimed, "[The terrorists] hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other." The last is the very freedom that the protesters have illustrated this weekend. Rather than being condemned for their actions, they should be commended. It seems ironic that the very characteristic the President celebrates about our nation - its democratic freedom - is attacked when used by protesters. The Constitution cannot be selectively applied.

Protests at this time provide a healthy alternative to the desire for military action permeating the nation. A democracy is always two steps away from anarchy due to majority tyranny. Anti-war protesters provide another viewpoint with which to judge and improve the one proposed by the government.

While the U.S. generally tries to represent its involvement in the Middle East in a positive light, many who oppose conflict claim that the U.S. has actually exacerbated the situation in the Middle East with its foreign policy. U.S. support of restrictive and weak regimes in countries like Saudi Arabia has increased opposition to the United States. Terrorists view the current regimes as too religiously weak, allowing western influence to essentially Americanize the Muslim culture. Thus, while the U.S. seeks to protect its self-interest in energy, terrorists seek to force American removal from the area to overthrow established regimes. It's not so much a fight over freedom and civilization, as the President proclaimed, but rather a fight over self-interest and power.

Moreover, most anti-war protesters did not intend to show disrespect for Sept. 11 deaths, but rather to forestall further deaths in the future. They are fearful the U.S. may "rush to war" when other methods might be more effective. For instance, one protester at the three-hour rally at Freedom Plaza waved a sign that claimed, "8 million Afghan refugees need food now, not war and terror." Some insist that aid would strengthen citizens' resistance to the regime in Afghanistan and then, perhaps, decrease terror tactics. Furthermore, an attack on the Muslim world could potentially weaken support for the U.S., portraying this nation as the violator of human rights. As Kevin Danaher said in his article in The Washington Post, "If we attack indiscriminately and kill innocent people, the photos of those dead Muslims will be the greatest recruiting tool the terrorists could ask for." Isn't this the exact result the terrorists desired from the violent acts of Sept. 11?

Not only have the anti-war protesters' messages been attacked, but also their demonstration's supposed hindrance in the D.C. clean-up efforts of the Pentagon. But this prejudice is unfounded, since the protesters did not significantly inconvenience D.C. Only 7,000 people participated in the event as opposed to the huge sum previously expected for the IMF protests. As a result, D.C. police were able to handle the situation without the aid of the New York police.

The anti-war protesters clearly had an agenda in their demonstrations and sought to communicate their passionate disavowal of violence to other American citizens. Their brave pursuit of democracy should be admired and commended by both their support and opposition, for in America, no reasonable opinion should be shunned.

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