Criticizing People Who May Have Inadvertently Helped the Enemy

Jonathan’s post about the recent op-ed in which deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan wrote, “Politically motivated criticism and unfounded fear-mongering only serve the goals of al-Qaeda,” led me to think about the broader question of criticizing people who one thinks may inadvertently be helping the enemy. I wrote a bit about this in Deterring Speech: When Is It “McCarthyism”? When Is It Proper?, 93 Cal. L. Rev. 1413 (2005), so I thought I’d take the liberty of quoting it. I omit the footnotes, but they’re all in the PDF; if you question whether one of my assertion is well-supported, please check the footnotes first to see if they may answer your question.

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“To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty,” Attorney General Ashcroft famously said not long after September 11, “my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies ….” That’s McCarthyism, some replied.

Here’s another quote, this one from the president: “Our nation has felt the lash of terrorism…. We can’t let [a certain group] turn America into a safehouse for terrorists. Congress should get back on track and send me tough legislation that cracks down on terrorism. It should listen to the cries of the victims and the hopes of our children, not the back-alley whispers of the [group].” The president was Bill Clinton, and the group that he was condemning was the “gun lobby,” which opposed some gun-control proposals that Clinton favored.

Likewise, following the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton argued on national television that violence is caused “not just [by] the movies showing violence. It’s the words spouting violence, giving sanction to violence, telling people how to practice violence that are sweeping all across the country. People should examine the consequences of what they say and the kind of emotions they’re trying to inflame.” He might have meant to condemn only those who actually urge violence, and not those who simply “giv[e] sanction to violence” by harshly criticizing the government. But his words could also have been interpreted (and were interpreted, by at least one sympathetic commentator) as a criticism of strident anti-government rhetoric more broadly.

Similarly, consider Winston Churchill’s lament that his critics’ wartime statements were (among other things) “weaken[ing] confidence in the Government,” “mak[ing] the Army distrust the backing it is getting from the civil power,” and “mak[ing] the workmen lose confidence in the weapons they are striving so hard to make,” all “to the distress of all our friends and to the delight of all our foes.” And, finally, consider this quote from George Orwell during World War II: “Pacifism is objectively pro-fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort on one side, you automatically help out that of the other.” Orwell’s message, I take it, was this: The pacifists’ tactics only aid the Nazis, for they erode the Allies’ national unity and diminish their resolve. They give ammunition to the Allies’ enemies.

Such statements have some things in common. They accuse people of doing things that help the enemy. The great majority of the accused are probably decent people, who have no desire to help terrorists or Nazis.The statements may also deter dissenters: People don’t like to be told that they are helping the nation’s mortal enemies, especially when the charge comes from an official to whom millions listen. Even if the accused think the accusation is unjust, they may keep quiet, or at least tone down their arguments, to avoid such attacks in the future. The accusers likely intended to deter dissent by making potential dissenters feel embarrassed to make certain criticisms that the accusers thought baseless and harmful.

And the accusations may also have been factually correct. Pacifists’ opposition to the Allied war effort may have helped the Nazis as much as pro-Nazi opposition would have. Excessive insistence on gun owners’ rights might likewise help terrorists. Similarly, criticisms of the administration’s actions may well erode national unity, diminish national resolve, give ammunition to our enemies, and aid terrorists. This is especially true when the criticisms come from legislative leaders. Recall that Ashcroft’s statement came at a hearing organized by Senator Patrick Leahy, then-chair of the Democrat-run Senate Judiciary Committee and a leading adversary of Ashcroft.The hearing had apparently been called in part to criticize the administration’s antiterrorism policy on civil liberties grounds. Enemies who see our political leaders divided on the war on terror may well be em-boldened, and foreign neutrals may see us as less likely to prevail than if we seemed united. Such internal division may well “distress …all our friends and …delight all our foes.” And if Senator Leahy’s and others’ criticisms were indeed unfounded or at least exaggerated (a hotly contested position, of course, but one that Ashcroft defended on the merits in his testimony), then Ashcroft could have reasonably concluded that the critics’ actions were both unjustified and dangerous.

Good intentions may sometimes yield bad results. That’s true of well-intentioned administration actions, which the party out of power often warns about. It’s also true of well-intentioned criticisms of such actions. If such bad results seem likely, then the public ought to be warned of this danger, though of course those who disagree should likewise argue that the danger is itself a “phantom.”

And government officials are as entitled as anyone else to note such dangers. The administration, which is responsible for keeping the country safe, has a responsibility to warn of a wide range of dangers. People who ignore the danger, if the danger is real, may well deserve to be criticized. And when political leaders debate questions of liberty and national security, plausible claims that one side’s actions may jeopardize liberty may reasonably be met by plausible claims that the other side’s actions may jeopardize security.Now it’s true, as many critics argue, that such accusations try to move people through fear. But terrorists ought to be feared. Many groups rightly try to influence voters by making them afraid of environmental catastrophe, crime, gun violence, terrorism, war, special interests, or suppression of civil rights. Well-founded fear is better than foolish fearlessness. Some fear is excessive or even irrational, but some is eminently justified, or is at least a reasonable response to uncertainty.

It’s also true that politicians sometimes harness fear for political advantage. That’s what they’re supposed to do in a democracy. When national security is a big part of an election campaign, each side likely believes that its program will protect the nation, and the other side’s will (at least comparatively) endanger the nation — and each side then has the right and even the duty to make these arguments to the voters.

In 2004 Democrats sincerely believed that reelecting George W. Bush would endanger America, because they thought that Bush’s national security policy was dangerous. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, for instance, argued that “the president has failed in how he has tried to protect America…. We are less safe — we are less safe because he is president ….” Republicans sincerely believed the same of Kerry, and argued accordingly. One might find one side’s case to be erroneous or even dishonest, but making fear of terrorism an “underlying theme of domestic and foreign policy” is quite proper when terrorists are doing frightening things.

Yet at the same time, pointing out (even if accurately) that criticism of the administration is helping America’s foreign or domestic enemies has costs. To begin with, it can distract from the legitimate arguments that the critic is making. Perhaps paying more attention to civil liberties will actually help the war effort by showing us to be a humane and tolerant nation and thus making us more popular throughout the world. Or maybe broadly protecting civil liberties will hurt the war effort, but some cost to the war effort is a tolerable price to pay for preserving our traditional rights.

Moreover, arguing that critics of the government are helping our enemies can wrongly tar people with the implication of bad purpose, even if no such charge is explicitly made. This may be unfair. It may breed unnecessary political hostility — not just disagreement but contempt or hatred — that is itself harmful to the nation. It can overdeter speech by making speakers afraid to level even those criticisms that, on balance, help the country more than hurt it. As Orwell himself wrote, just two years after the lines I quote above,

We are told that it is only people’s objective actions that matter, and their subjective feelings are of no importance. Thus pacifists, by obstructing the war effort, are “objectively” aiding the Nazis; and therefore the fact that they may be personally hostile to Fascism is irrelevant. I have been guilty of saying this myself more than once….

In my opinion a few pacifists are inwardly pro-Nazi …. The important thing is to discover which individuals are honest and which are not, and the usual blanket accusation merely makes this more difficult. The atmosphere of hatred in which controversy is conducted blinds people to considerations of this kind. To admit that an opponent might be both honest and intelligent is felt to be intolerable. It is more immediately satisfying to shout that he is a fool or a scoundrel, or both, than to find out what he is really like.

Now perhaps Orwell’s change of mind was occasioned by the change from the dark days of 1942 to post-D-day, post-Stalingrad 1944. It is easier to be generous to those who, in your view, helped Hitler (even unintentionally) when Hitler is nearly defeated. Yet I think that Orwell’s second thoughts, whatever their reason, were objectively the right ones. Explaining why your adversaries’ arguments unintentionally help the enemy is legitimate. But expressly acknowledging that this effect is likely unintentional — even when you’re tussling with a senator who you think has unfairly attacked you — is fairer, less politically divisive, and often more rhetorically effective. I suspect John Ashcroft’s quote alienated more Americans than it persuaded. Likewise, the vitriolic Bush-the-Nazi attacks from some parts of the Left probably, on balance, helped Bush in the 2004 election.

So it seems to me that, first, the quotes with which I began this Part could have been put better. Second, because people tend to overestimate the bad effects of their adversaries’ speech, we should often be skeptical about allegations of such bad effects. And third, such allegations provide a convenient way to evade (deliberately or subconsciously) the substantive criticisms leveled by the adversaries’ speech.

Nonetheless, responding to such allegations with charges of McCarthyism is likewise a convenient way to evade the merits of those allegations. If Ashcroft, Clinton, Orwell, and Churchill were wrong in their estimates of the harm that their adversaries’ arguments were causing, one should certainly call them on that. One should do likewise if the harms are exceeded by the benefit of the remedies that the adversaries propose. But these arguments need to be made on the merits. Labeling allegations as “McCarthyism” is likely to distract listeners more than it helps them assess which allegations are sound and which aren’t.