In the days just before Easter, when few people were paying attention, Great Britain’s police commissioner admitted that members of Northern Ireland’s security forces had worked with Loyalist paramilitaries to murder Catholics in the 1980’s. The most prominent victim was Pat Finucane, a civil rights attorney who was killed after a member of the House of Commons denounced lawyers who provided legal counsel (i.e., aid and comfort) to suspected terrorists. Somebody ought to do something about these awful lawyers, the M.P. said. Somebody did, days later, with the apparent knowledge of security and army officials. Pat Finucane was slain in front of his wife and children. His killers have never been brought to justice.
Sir John Stevens, commissioner of Britain’s Metropolitan Police Department, confirmed what civil rights activists and ordinary Catholics on both sides of the Atlantic had been saying for 20 years: police officers and army officers in Northern Ireland helped Loyalist gunmen target Catholic political activists for assassination. But in 1985, those who made such claims were slandered as apologists for terrorism. Criticism of security forces was interpreted as evidence of sympathy with the I.R.A. Even those who simply questioned Britain’s administration of Northern Ireland—a province with a long and well-documented history of anti-Catholic bigotry—could expect terrible personal attacks in reply. British tabloids regularly referred to the legendary Archbishop of Armagh, Tomás ó Fiaich, as the I.R.A.’s Chaplain in Chief. His offense? He criticized Britain’s treatment of political prisoners and he dared to suggest that I.R.A. terrorism, reprehensible though it was, was the bitter fruit of years of anti-Catholic discrimination.
There are many lessons to be drawn from the expiring conflict in Northern Ireland and America’s war on terrorism, or more particularly, the war in Iraq. In Northern Ireland, many supporters of the status quo considered dissenters and terrorists to be one in the same. Those who condemned social injustice were no better than those who placed bombs in public places. At this moment in the war on terror, the American government and elements of the American media seem determined to make the same mistakes Britain did in Ireland.
Only somebody like the filmmaker Michael Moore would dare suggest that the outrages visited upon Catholic dissidents in Northern Ireland may be replicated in America or in American-controlled areas overseas. But it is not a stretch to suggest that we are fast approaching a time when anyone who questions American policy in the Middle East, or anywhere in the world, will be slandered as a terrorist sympathizer. The tenor of debate among the swaggering pro-war crowd suggests that dissenters can expect no quarter. The White House spokesman, Ari Fleisher, recently berated the U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix for criticizing American policy in postwar Iraq. Clearly those who question American aims in the Middle East, who suggest that American motives may be less pure than the White House suggests, can expect to be libeled as traitors and apologists for Osama bin Laden. Groups that support creation of a Palestinian state or that advocate the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza no doubt will be tarred as the unwitting allies of militant Islam.
If this sounds alarmist, tune in to Fox News Channel or nearly any talk radio show on any given day. There you will hear the full-throated voice of imperial America, threatening all who dare oppose the might of American political and military power. The French and Germans are reviled as friends of Palestinian terrorists and anti-Semites at their core. An antiwar Vietnam veteran recently was excoriated as a “bad American” on one of Fox News Channel’s shoutfests.
Of course this is not to say that dissenters in America will be subjected to the treatment meted out to Pat Finucane in 1989. But it is a brave man or woman who voices skepticism about our ongoing adventure in the Middle East. While we preach democracy in Iraq and elsewhere, a man like John Kerry, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, is assailed for advocating “regime change” in Washington. It is just a matter of time before his patriotism comes under attack—didn’t he march against the Vietnam War, after all?
Could dissent be suppressed at home and treated even more brutally in American-controlled areas abroad? I have little doubt. I saw what happened to dissenters in Northern Ireland only 20 years ago. I know men and women whose conversations were monitored by the American government simply because they dared to question the policies of an ally, Great Britain. Thousands of Irish Americans know all too well that their activism on behalf of Catholics in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s and 1980’s was routinely interpreted, in Washington as well as London, as providing aid and comfort to I.R.A. terrorists. As numerous books and articles have demonstrated, Irish Americans were subjected to harassment and worse from American security forces, even as like-minded people in Northern Ireland were being murdered with the knowledge and even participation of British security agents.
There is little question that the White House intends to cover itself with a giant American flag for the remainder of President Bush’s first term. Criticism will be construed as sympathy for America’s enemies. Meanwhile, those in Iraq and elsewhere who question American authority will not have a Bill of Rights—or anything else—to protect them.
The war in Iraq may be over, but the world is no less frightening.