FIRST-PERSON: Balancing protest & patriotism

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)--The Constitution of the United States is the most thoroughgoing treatise on human rights in the history of modern civilization. Within it, citizens of the country are guaranteed "certain inalienable rights." Among these are the right to free speech and the right of lawful assembly.

In America, the Vietnam War inspired all kinds of anti-war dissent: terrorism, military desertion and collective protests, the likes of which have not been staged since, until now amid the rattled sabers of imminent war against Iraq.

Despite the present fervor of dissent against war in Iraq, it is doubtful that among the protesters any will be found who personally favor the oppressive dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and his band of henchmen. Rather, there are numerous larger issues that accompany peaceful protests, the roots of which may well be unfathomable.

First, the exercise of free speech by Americans against the use of large-scale military force to depose Hussein is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the protests reaffirm the viability of the democratic processes in America. Protesters demand political forthrightness and most, if not all, have a visceral and penultimate concern for the sanctity of human life.

Yet, Americans either knowingly or unknowingly join their voices with those here and abroad that are distinctly and violently anti-American.

Also, unfortunately, these events of lawful American assembly and free speech grant the petty dictator at the center of this brouhaha the momentary privilege of cloaking himself in the very benefits of freedom and democracy he routinely denies his millions of countrymen. Still further, to inadvertently coddle the enemy disavows the high value and worth of service rendered to the United States by American military personnel.

Obviously, depending on which scientific polls are believed, not all Americans nor much of the rest of the world have been convinced by the passions of President Bush, Secretary Powell and Prime Minister Blair for war against Iraq.

Their persuasive discourses have still not made the case that Hussein is enough of a clear and present threat to the United States and its allies to prosecute a major war against that nation.

According to CNN, on Feb. 15 anti-war demonstrations were held in as many as 600 U.S. cities and 60 nations, 30 million people worldwide, including 1 million people in Britain demonstrating against the war.

But in this surging wave of mass human discontent, what is most at stake for America?

Certainly, with or without war against Iraq, America has the hundreds of thousands of lives of its military men and women at stake.

Under not one circumstance can the terms of democracy as provided by the Constitution of the United States for free speech and freedom of assembly be breached.

In Dan Caravale's Jan. 31 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a statement released by the Association of American Universities said, "For universities to fulfill obligations to academic freedom and intellectual development, they must provide a forum in which individuals and groups can advocate their views."

This assertion applies equally to every American in or out of the universities.

Nonetheless, as Americans freely exercise their constitutional freedoms, care must be taken to balance this most delicate liberty with a healthy dose of responsibility, wisdom, forethought and an understanding of spherical consequences where America's most important military resource -- the men and women in uniform -- is concerned.

It would go well with all Americans if those who protest chose their battles thoughtfully and carefully.

If Americans do not take care and responsibility with protesting this military issue, there could well be a return of issues that were present in the aftermath of war with Vietnam.

The consequences of war will not lie in some remote and barren war arena. They will appear on American soil when men and women in uniform return home after obeying orders to perform their duties lawfully as are therein described in the Constitution of the United States of America to protect the liberties of this nation.


Terriel R. Byrd, Ph.D., is assistant professor of religion and director of urban ministries studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University, West Palm Beach, Fla.

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