Letter from America: Senator suggests eroding free speech and no one seems to notice

Respected US Senator Lindsey Graham said a remarkable thing last Sunday morning on one of the weekly political round-up shows that are popular with Washington insiders.

“I wish we could find some way to hold people accountable,” the senator from South Carolina said, responding to the Koran-burning stunt by a fringe Florida pastor that prompted deadly riots in Afghanistan. “Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war. During World War II, you had limits on what you could say if it would inspire the enemy.”

Americans don’t typically harken back to World War II as a model of right-headed civil liberties restraint; kitschy propaganda posters from that era are a popular attraction in the Smithsonian museum today as a quaint reminder that the US government once threatened civilians that their slightest blabber could cost entire submarines of allied lives.

Sixty years after World War II, Americans more sceptical of their government should be wary of any sentence from a powerful politician that starts, “Free speech is a great idea, but…”

Last Sunday morning, though, Lindsey Graham suggested the country might need to consider pushing back against “actions like this that put our troops at risk” – and then Bob Schieffer, the host of the CBS program “Face the Nation,” pivoted right to a question about arming rebels in Libya.

There was no follow-up on Graham’s deeply controversial suggestion. The New York Times made no mention of the comments. It garnered three paragraphs on Politico.

The oddly muted response capped a strange run for the entire Terry Jones saga. When the Florida pastor threatened last summer, around the anniversary of 11 September, to burn a Koran, hordes of media descended on his small central-Florida church, interfaith religious leaders put the pastor on speed-dial and even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called to personally plead the military’s case.

Jones finally demurred, a prime example of the theory that the best antidote to hate speech is more speech. An odd thing happened, though, when he changed his mind.

Jones caused an international stir just by threatening to burn the Koran, but when he finally went through with it on 20 March – “It’s like people forgot about us,” he whined to the Washington Post – hardly anyone in America noticed. The lone outsider present for the spectacle appears to have been an unlucky fire department official called to supervise. It took two weeks for the story to ricochet all the way to Afghanistan and back again in the form of dead UN workers before it finally made the front page.

Had no one died — had Muslims overseas not been streaming Jones’ Internet production when his own neighbours were not looking — it’s easy to imagine the incident may have gotten no attention at all.

So why was everyone so riled by the man in September and not in March? And why did the equally provocative suggestion that America curtail wartime free expression as a result go largely undiscussed?

The simplest answer is: We’ve been busy. A more patient and media-savy Jones would have known to wait for a lull in the news cycle. Right now, though, everyone from the president to TV pundits is pretty occupied trying to figure out if we’ve just entered a third war or not. And then there’s the whole issue of the federal government shutting down for the first time in 15 years amid an intractable budget dispute on Capitol Hill.

No one should be faulted for ignoring Jones this time around – in fact, ignoring hate speech before the Internet age was another good way to dilute its power. But Americans need to make time to worry about politicians hedging on the rights of free expression regardless of what else is going on. Forgetting about Terry Jones is one thing; letting Lindsey Graham off the hook is another.

After all, past wars tell the story that free speech is easiest to erode when no one’s paying attention.