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Rebuilding Iraq

War critics struggle to get public forum

By Geneive Abdo, Globe Correspondent, 3/28/2003

    Rebuilding Iraq


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WASHINGTON -- This is the outlook on the war that Ben Cohen, the ice cream mogul of Ben & Jerry's, thinks Americans should be able to see on television: Actress Susan Sarandon asking, "What did Iraq do to us?" and Edward Peck, a former US ambassador to Iraq, replying, "Nothing . . . Iraq has nothing to do with terrorism or Al Qaeda."

But the major networks did not accept that ad, which was produced for Cohen's activist group, A spokesman for CNN, one of the networks that rejected the ad, said that the cable channel does not run "advocacy ads about regions in conflict." The ad eventually ran on local cable stations in Washington, New York, and Los Angeles.

"Times have definitely changed," said Duane Peterson, chief of "stuff" for Cohen's group. "During Vietnam, the media itself became an agent of social change when it exposed the fallibility and motivation of mainstream American leaders. Now the media is censoring those dissenters who don't agree with them."

As Americans tuned into a second week of Pentagon briefings assuring them of victory against Iraq and reports from the front lines of US troops advancing toward Baghdad, some antiwar activists were fighting to be heard.

Civil libertarians, writers, and actors say that a rise in patriotism due to the war has prompted private, unofficial pressure aimed at silencing opponents of the conflict. The American Civil Liberties Union cited an increase in complaints from individuals who say that their right to free expression has been violated.

"Just when free speech rights should be most robust, they are being repressed," said Nadine Strossen, president of the ACLU. "The tone was set by [Attorney General] John Ashcroft, when he said that those who complain about the lack of civic rights are giving support to the enemy. The signal was sent that one's loyalty to this country will be questioned if you question what the government is doing."

Poet Sam Hamill was invited to speak at a literary gala at the White House in January. But the event was canceled, after administration officials discovered that he planned to read antiwar poetry.

"Benito Mussolini said the ideal fascism is the perfect marriage between corporation and the state," Hamill said, "and that's what the Bush administration is all about."

Hamill said he was puzzled by the cancellation because the poets who were to be honored included Langston Hughes, the African-American writer, and others known to be advocates of free speech. Since then, Hamill has organized "Poets Against the War."

At the Islamic Foundation in Villa Park, a suburb of Chicago, a man aimed a rifle at worshipers on March 11 as they prayed inside the mosque. The shot failed to penetrate a double-glass window, and no one was hurt. After additional harassment, the foundation hired a private security force at a rate of $500 a day.

Abdul Hameed Doger, the foundation's director, said that he doubted that any of the mosque's 2,000 members are political activists. But he said there is a perception that, because they are Muslims, they must be against the war. The harassment of Muslims that began after the Sept. 11 attacks, said Doger, increased as the war against Iraq approached.

"I feel personally that I am a target," he said. "I moved to this country from Pakistan 41 years ago, and I have never seen people so intolerant."

The Committee on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based advocacy group, also says that Muslims have become targets more often. When a Muslim soldier allegedly tossed a grenade at his officers in Kuwait, Muslims in the United States endured a spate of harassment and threats.

Attempts to quash antiwar sentiment have also occurred in the music industry. Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, a popular country and Western band, generated controversy when she remarked during a tour in Britain, "We're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas."

Subsequently, more than 40 radio stations have dropped the band's songs from the airwaves. KKBQ-FM in Houston stopped playing the Dixie Chicks' songs after polling listeners.

"We put a poll on our website," said Michael Curtis, KKBQ's program director. "Within eight hours, 26,000 people had responded, and 72 percent said we should take the Chicks off the air.

"I do agree with the majority," he said. "But even if I didn't, I don't think it's my place to decide for 320,000 listeners, when many of them are obviously so angry."

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