Illustration by Winston Smith
Patriotism is typically defined as love of country. And love, it is said, is blind. No wonder then that those who dare to address or seek out inconvenient and uncomfortable truths about the government often go unrecognized as true patriots or, worse, are denounced by others who would (if they could) turn the flag into camouflage for official malfeasance.
Several courageous citizens have recently tried to keep the U.S. government honest and have been slammed and slimed for their efforts. Here are some of the folks who should be revered across the land as American heroes, but red-white-and-blue conservatives have made them figures of controversy and targets for scorn or revenge:
Kristin Breitweiser, Patty Casazza, Mindy Kleinberg and Lorie Van Auken, a group of 9/11 widows in New Jersey, have pushed the government to tell the full story of the horrific attacks that killed their husbands. It is due to their relentless endeavors — and those of other 9/11 relatives — that George W. Bush, after a year of resistance, caved and established the commission to investigate the September 11 attacks.
And since the 9/11 inquiry began in early 2003, Breitweiser and her colleagues have been stalwart watchdogs, pressing the commission to hold open hearings and to get the job done right. When the commission, earlier this year, announced it needed a few extra months to finish its work, Bush and House Speaker Denny Hastert said no. The widows went ballistic and forced these powerful men to retreat. And it was the outcry of the 9/11 widows that forced National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify publicly before the commission after the administration first refused to let her do so.
For their noble efforts, Breitweiser and the other widows have been hammered by the twin towers of the right: Rush Limbaugh and The Wall Street Journal editorial page. On March 9, Limbaugh blasted the widows as shills for the “Democratic Party machine” and called them “Democratic campaign consultants, not grieving family members” who were “poisoned by their hate.” In an open letter to Limbaugh, Breitweiser, whose husband, Ron, worked on the 94th floor of the South Tower, noted that she is not a Democrat, that she was not, as Limbaugh had claimed, “schooled” in what to say by the Democratic Party, and that she and her husband both voted for Bush in 2000.
A few weeks later, Dorothy Rabinowitz, a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, published a rather long op-ed that took another shot at Breitweiser and her comrades. Breitweiser’s chief offense, in the eyes of the rabid Rabinowitz, was suggesting that “President Bush and his workers . . . were the individuals that failed my husband and the 3,000 people that day.” Given that the preliminary reports of the 9/11 commission and the report of the congressional intelligence committees have detailed numerous U.S. government screwups that made it much easier for the plotters to succeed, Breitweiser had a point. Yet Rabinowitz mocked the widows as lost-in-grief purveyors of “false and irrelevant” opinions about 9/11.
When Breitweiser and her three associates tried to get the Journal to publish a piece they had written, Rabinowitz mistakenly sent Breitweiser an e-mail in which she called her and the widows “women clearly in the grip of the delusion that they know something.”
While attending a 9/11 commission meeting in May, Breitweiser remarked, “What bothers me is, if you disagree with someone like Dorothy Rabinowitz or Rush Limbaugh, you are attacked as being political. We live in a democracy and should be able to have healthy, respectful debate.” She noted that she had asked Limbaugh to debate the issues with her on air. Her offer was rejected.
Our second winner, on this July Fourth, of the truth-seeking-is-for-suckers award goes to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Last summer, you will recall, the president was in trouble for having made what seemed to be a false charge in his January 2003 State of the Union address: that Iraq had been shopping for uranium in Africa. With that allegation, Bush was suggesting that Saddam Hussein was close to acquiring a nuclear weapon. Months later, as critics accused Bush of hyping an untrue allegation, the White House sought to defend its use of this charge. To set the record straight, Wilson revealed that a year before Bush’s speech, he had been sent by the CIA to Niger to investigate this charge and had reported back (as had other U.S. government emissaries) that it was highly improbable.
After Wilson’s disclosure, the Bush White House gave up and admitted the allegation should not have been in Bush’s speech. But days later, two administration sources told conservative columnist Robert Novak that Wilson’s wife, Valerie, was a CIA operative working on weapons of mass destruction. Novak published this factoid, and the undercover career of Valerie Wilson (a.k.a. Valerie Plame) was ruined. Moreover, national security was harmed, and possibly federal law prohibiting government officials from identifying covert U.S. officials was broken. (The Justice Department is still investigating the leak, and Bush was recently questioned by the prosecutors in charge of the case.)
One element of this tale is not so well-known. Before the Iraq war, Wilson was a fierce opponent of last year’s U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. As the last acting ambassador in Iraq before the first Persian Gulf war, he had taken a confrontational stance against Hussein and had supported the 1991 war. This made him a particularly credible voice of opposition this time around; he was one of the few establishment-type figures in Washington who passionately decried Bush’s rush to war. Throughout the protracted run-up to the war, Wilson knew that Bush had misled the country in his State of the Union speech. But he did not put this information to any advantage. Instead, he privately sent a message to the White House: You ought to correct the record on this.
Former diplomat that he was, he tried to go through channels; he did not want to embarrass the president, even though he disagreed with him. Only after it seemed the White House was sticking to the uranium-in-Africa charge — and this was months after the war was launched — did Wilson go public. Because Wilson decided to divulge the truth, at least two persons in the Bush administration (and maybe more) went after his wife, endangered her secret anti-WMD work (and perhaps that of her CIA colleagues) and impaired U.S. national security. And when Wilson complained about this payback, he was widely assailed by Republicans for being a — gasp! — Democratic partisan.
Then there’s Joseph Darby. His is the saddest story of the lot. He is the 24-year-old Army reservist who worked at Abu Ghraib prison. After hearing that there had been a shooting at the prison’s so-called “hard site,” he asked a military-police officer named Charles Graner Jr. if he had any photos of the cell where the shooting had occurred. Graner handed him two CDs of photographs. They contained much more than pictures of the cell; there were hundreds of photographs of Iraqi prisoners being abused.
Darby told investigators that Graner had said to him, “The Christian in me says it’s wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, ‘I love to make a grown man piss himself.’” Darby slipped an anonymous note reporting the abuse under the door of investigators working for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. He then came forward and gave a sworn statement. “It was just wrong,” Darby told the investigators. “I knew I had to do something.”
Darby’s actions triggered the investigation that led to the prison abuse scandal. But he has not been widely hailed for this courageous whistle-blowing. When a Washington Post reporter recently visited Darby’s hometown of Corriganville, Maryland, his neighbors in this mountain community rebuked him for being a snitch. His relatives have refused interviews; some have slipped out of town. The New York Post ran a story about Darby beneath the headline “Hero a Two-Timing Rat.” The article focused on his personal life — as if that matters much — but the title sent another message. According to the Washington Post, “The Army says it’s considering giving Darby a medal, although Army spokesman Dov Schwartz said it can’t say when.”
There are no signs that the military is rushing to honor Darby, who is unlikely to receive a hero’s welcome in his hometown anytime soon. By the way, it took the Army 30 years to honor a whistleblower who reported to his commanders the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
America, of thee I sing. But not the sour notes. Darby, Wilson, and Breitweiser and the 9/11 widows all acted on the assumption that serving the truth is the obligation of a good citizen. Each has learned the hard way that not all of their fellow Americans agree with this radical idea.