Frank Gaffney and Treason

11:55 Sat 17 Feb 2007. Updated: 19:54 13 Mar 2011
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Recently the Washington Times featured an editorial by Frank Gaffney (cached here) in which Gaffney called for an examination on “what constitutes inappropriate behavior in time of war”—after opening with a (fictitious!) quotation from Abraham Lincoln calling for the hanging of Congressmen who damage morale during wartime.

The Washington Times, owned by Sun Myung Moon, is in my opinion a strongly right-leaning paper. In addition, Frank Gaffney has long been a neo-con stalwart and proponent of the expansion of American power in the Middle East and elsewhere. Much of this ground has been covered by Glenn Greenwald here and here.

While he refuses to acknowledge it outright, in that editorial Gaffney is clearly arguing for placing limitations on debate—particularly on the floor of the House—during wartime. If those limitations are not preventive, they are punitive, which is why he uses the invented Lincoln quotation to suggest that dissent strengthens the enemy, that strengthening the enemy is treason, and that treason should be punished very severely.

Gaffney has since denied that he was equating dissent with treason. However, he continues to argue that there should be “consequences” for speech or acts that “embolden the enemy”.

Greenwald and others have dealt with most of the issues arising here, but one point that I haven’t seen anyone else make is a key one: punishing treasonous speech requires letting some authority define what it is. That seems obvious, but it should be clear that this definition is a) incredibly tricky and b) subject to highly volatile changes. As such, it is a topic that needs to be handled with tremendous amounts of clarity, care, and responsbility—and as far as I can tell, most of the voices on the pro-war side exhibit little care or responsibility.

Put more simply, what Gaffney and other authoritarian types are really arguing for is the punishment of “emboldening the enemy” speech that they don’t like. Questioning the need for the war at all, for example, or suggesting that the motivations for the war might not be entirely pure, or suggesting that the entire thing is a unnecessary mess steeped in greed, incompetence, and opportunism that Gaffney’s political allies led the country into—these are all views they would be likely to consider as “irresponsible” and as “emboldening the enemy”.

What if they have a point? What if there really are Al Qaeda (we’ll give them the “enemy” tag right now) operatives out there who are watching the US media closely, and every time there’s an accusation of opportunism or incompetence they go to their troops (we’ll assume they have lots of troops engaged in direct attacks on the US and US forces) and say “The Americans themselves admit they attacked without good reason!” or “The Americans themselves admit that their war effort is incompetent—victory shall be ours!”.

One could see how these things might help morale on the enemy side, sure.

So how about this: after 9/11, Ann Coulter, referring to the Middle East, wrote: “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”

Going back to our Al Qaeda operatives, what are they going to do with this line? “The Americans themselves admit they they want to force us all to become Christians!” That’s obviously going to deeply anger Muslims, and their resulting outrage and passion are also going to embolden them.

So should Ann Coulter be tried for treason, since she’s clearly emboldening the enemy? I can’t see Gaffney, or any of the authoritarians, making that argument. They use the “emboldening the enemy” line for effect, but faced with an example like the one above, they’ll return to the idea of “undermining the military/war effort”. The obvious result of making “undermining the war effort” treasonous is that wars can’t be stopped once they’ve started, since advocating for their end would be undermining the war effort.

Authoritarians would be fine with that, of course. The whole drive of authoritarianism is to a society where people believe that obedience is for the benefit of all. So if you manage to both start a war and convince people that no matter what started the war, we’re in it now and it shouldn’t be questioned, you’re quite far along the authoritarian path—especially since a war is precisely the kind of dramatic “special circumstance” that allows for constant expansion of what’s part of the “war effort” and what’s not.

Lastly, all of the rhetoric from the authoritarian side in this argument is coming from the position that the country is locked in a battle to the death, that any misstep could result in utter destruction. That’s why they look back to the Civil War era for support, because they want to equate current circumstances with that period. That’s also why they exaggerate the threat from “the enemy” as possibly resulting in annihilation, because most people agree that when the threat of annihilation is real, a society needs to pull together. This natural urge to pull together is then perversely warped to allow those in power to stifle dissent and eliminate political enemies of the ruling faction—and this is what the neo-cons have been attempting to do, is in many ways the core of their political identity.

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