Here, as promised, a special comment about free speech, failed speakers and the delusion of grandeur.
“This is a serious long-term war,” the man at the podium cried, “and it will inevitably lead us to want to know what is said in every suspect place in the country.”
Some in the audience must have thought they were hearing an arsonist give the keynote address at a convention of firefighters.
This was the annual Loeb First Amendment Dinner in Manchester, N.H. — a public cherishing of freedom of speech — in the state with the two-fisted motto “Live Free Or Die.”
And the arsonist at the microphone, the former speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, was insisting that we must attach an “on-off button” to free speech.
He offered the time-tested excuse trotted out by our demagogues since even before the Republic was founded: widespread death, of Americans, in America, possibly at the hands of Americans.
But updated, now, to include terrorists using the Internet for recruitment. End result — “losing a city.”
The colonial English defended their repression with words like these.
And so did the slave states.
And so did the policemen who shot strikers.
And so did Lindbergh’s America First crowd.
And so did those who interned Japanese-Americans.
And so did those behind the Red Scare.
And so did Nixon’s plumbers.
The genuine proportion of the threat is always irrelevant.
The fear the threat is exploited to create becomes the only reality.
“We will adopt rules of engagement that use every technology we can find,” Mr. Gingrich continued about terrorists, formerly communists, formerly hippies, formerly Fifth Columnists, formerly anarchists, formerly Redcoats, “to break up their capacity to use the Internet, to break up their capacity to use free speech.”
Mr. Gingrich, the British “broke up our capacity to use free speech” in the 1770s.
The pro-slavery leaders “broke up our capacity to use free speech” in the 1850s.
The FBI and CIA “broke up our capacity to use free speech” in the 1960s.
It is in those groups where you would have found your kindred spirits, Mr. Gingrich.
Those who had no faith in freedom, no faith in this country, and, ultimately, no faith even in the strength of their own ideas, to stand up on their own legs without having the playing field tilted entirely to their benefit.
“It will lead us to learn,” Gingrich continued, “how to close down every Web site that is dangerous, and it will lead us to a very severe approach to people who advocate the killing of Americans and advocate the use of nuclear and biological weapons.”
That we have always had “a very severe approach” to these people is insufficient for Mr. Gingrich’s ends.
He wants to somehow ban the idea.
Even though everyone who has ever protested a movie or a piece of music or a book has learned the same lesson:
Try to suppress it, and you only validate it.
Make it illegal, and you make it the subject of curiosity.
Say it cannot be said, and it will instead be screamed.
And on top of the thundering danger in his eagerness to sell out freedom of speech, there is a sadder sound, still — the tinny crash of a garbage can lid on a sidewalk.
Whatever dreams of Internet censorship float like a miasma in Mr. Gingrich’s personal swamp, whatever hopes he has of an Iron Firewall, the simple fact is, technically they won’t work.
As of tomorrow they will have been defeated by a free computer download.
Mere hours after Gingrich’s speech in New Hampshire, the University of Toronto announced it had come up with a program called Psiphon to liberate those in countries in which the Internet is regulated.
Places like China and Iran, where political ideas are so barren, and political leaders so desperate that they put up computer firewalls to keep thought and freedom out.
The Psiphon device is a relay of sorts that can surreptitiously link a computer user in an imprisoned country to another in a free one.
The Chinese think the wall works, yet the ideas — good ideas, bad ideas, indifferent ideas — pass through anyway.
The same way the Soviet bloc was defeated by the images of Western material bounty.
If your hopes of thought control can be defeated, Mr. Gingrich, merely by one computer whiz staying up an extra half hour and devising a new “firewall hop,” what is all this apocalyptic hyperbole for?
“I further think,” you said in Manchester, “we should propose a Geneva convention for fighting terrorism, which makes very clear that those who would fight outside the rules of law, those who would use weapons of mass destruction, and those who would target civilians are in fact subject to a totally different set of rules, that allow us to protect civilization by defeating barbarism …”
Well, Mr. Gingrich, what is more “massively destructive” than trying to get us to give you our freedom?
And what is someone seeking to hamstring the First Amendment doing, if not “fighting outside the rules of law”?
And what is the suppression of knowledge and freedom, if not “barbarism”?
The explanation, of course, is in one last quote from Mr. Gingrich from New Hampshire and another from last week.
“I want to suggest to you,” he said about these Internet restrictions, “that we right now should be impaneling people to look seriously at a level of supervision that we would never dream of if it weren’t for the scale of the threat.”
And who should those “impaneled” people be?
Funny I should ask, isn’t it, Mr. Gingrich?
“I am not ‘running’ for president,” you told a reporter from Fortune Magazine. “I am seeking to create a movement to win the future by offering a series of solutions so compelling that if the American people say I have to be president, it will happen.”
Newt Gingrich sees in terrorism, not something to be exterminated, but something to be exploited.
It’s his golden opportunity, isn’t it?
“Rallying a nation,” you might say, “to hysteria, to sweep us up into the White House with powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy.”
That’s from the original version of the movie “The Manchurian Candidate” — the chilling words of Angela Lansbury’s character, as she first promises to sell her country to the Chinese and Russians, then reveals she’ll double-cross them and keep all the power herself, waving the flag every time she subjugates another freedom.
Within the frame of our experience as a free and freely argumentative people, it is almost impossible to conceive that there are those among us who might approach the kind of animal wildness of fiction like that — those who would willingly transform our beloved country into something false and terrible.
Who among us can look to our own histories, or those of our ancestors who struggled to get here, or who struggled to get freedom after they were forced here, and not tear up when we read Frederick Douglass’s words from a century and a half ago?: “Freedom must take the day.”
And who among us can look to our collective history and not see its turning points — like the Civil War, like Watergate, like the Revolution itself — in which the right idea defeated the wrong idea on the battlefield that is the marketplace of ideas?
But apparently there are some of us who cannot see that the only future for America is one that cherishes the freedoms won in the past, one in which we vanquish bad ideas with better ones, and in which we fight for liberty by having more liberty, not less.
“I am seeking to create a movement to win the future by offering a series of solutions so compelling that if the American people say I have to be president, it will happen.”
What a dark place your world must be, Mr. Gingrich, where the way to save America is to destroy America.
I will awaken every day of my life thankful I am not with you in that dark place.
And I will awaken every day of my life thankful that you are entitled to tell me about it.
And that you are entitled to show me what an evil idea it represents and what a cynical mind.
And that you are entitled to do all that, thanks to the very freedoms you seek to suffocate.