Banana Republicans: Traitor Baiters

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Traitor Baiters is the title of chapter six of the 2004 book by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing Is Turning America Into a One-Party State (ISBN 1585423424).

Summary

As defined by the Constitution, treason consists of two types of crimes, both of which constitute intentional acts of betraying the nation. Recognizing the serious nature of such a charge, U.S. courts have rarely sought to use this as the basis for criminal prosecutions. In the entire history of the country, there have been fewer than 40 federal trials for treason and even fewer convictions.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, however, the rhetoric of the conservative movement marked an abandonment of this tolerant tradition. The accusation of treason has been bandied about routinely against liberals in general and especially against critics of the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq.

Conservative firebrand Ann Coulter claims that liberals have been conspiring to destroy the nation for the past half century, beginning with the Cold War when "Democrats opposed anything opposed by their cherished Soviet Union." In contrast with the Constitution, which declares that treason must be intentional, Coulter insists that it doesn't even matter whether liberals know they are betraying the nation. "They are either traitors or idiots," she writes, and "the difference is irrelevant."

Even before 9/11, corporate think tanks and the conservative movement regularly demonized environmental and other activist groups by associating them with terrorism. The Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, an organization run by anti-environmentalist crusader Ron Arnold, has been tossing around the term "eco-terrorism" for years, defining it so broadly that it even includes activities such as sit-ins and other forms of peaceful civil disobedience.

The post-9/11 political climate made it easier for voices within the White House and the conservative movement to accuse their ideological opponents of treason. "Even fanatical Muslim terrorists don't hate America like liberals do," declared Coulter at the February 2002 annual conference of the Conservative Political Action Committee. Speaking before an audience of 3,500 that included luminaries such as Lynne Cheney, Bill Bennett and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, Coulter drew applause when she commented on the recent capture of John Walker Lindh, an American citizen who fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. "In contemplating college liberals," Coulter said, "you really regret, once again, that John Walker is not getting the death penalty. We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals by making them realize that they could be killed, too." (Actually, John Walker Lindh himself is not a liberal. Like Coulter, he is a fundamentalist.)

In speeches criticizing the Senate's hesitation to pass a bill creating the Homeland Security Department, Bush repeatedly characterized Democratic opponents of the bill as "interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people." Attorney General John Ashcroft used similar rhetoric in support of the U.S.A. Patriot_Act_I, legislation approved by Congress in October 2001 that gives the Justice Department new powers to spy on U.S. citizens.

You might be tempted to shrug off this rhetoric as the normal, if mean-spirited, posturing of one side in a two-sided, rough-and-tumble political debate. At present, however, Republican dominance of America's governmental institutions has turned this rhetoric into the language of the powerful against the powerless. As the conservative movement understands perfectly well, ideas have consequences, and the ideas expressed by people like Ann Coulter affect the lives and freedom of everyday citizens.

Such rhetoric is often absorbed by law enforcement officials who can take it as a signal from their political masters to repress civil protests. In November 2003, police attacks on anti-globalization demonstrators in Miami, Florida were widely criticised. The architect of the police strategy was Miami police chief John Timony, who had previously overseen aggressive police tactics against demonstrators as Philadelphia's police chief during the 2000 Republican National Convention. He characterized the protesters against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), an extension of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as "outsiders coming to terrorize and vandalize our city."

After the trade talks and demonstrations had ended, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz proudly claimed that the FTAA police operations stood as "a model for homeland security." He may be correct. FBI agents, Department of Homeland Security officials, and law-enforcement leaders from Georgia and New York traveled to Miami to observe cutting-edge crowd control tactics in action. If the "Miami model" takes hold, however, we can expect more examples of violent harassment aimed at peaceful dissent.

Discussion questions

  • What is the difference between treason and the right to free speech in a democracy?
  • What difference have the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks made to citizens right to free speech in America?
  • Does it matter if people whose views you may disagree with are referred to as traitors? Why?
  • Are street marches and protests a form of terorrism? Why or why not?

Sources