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A funny thing happened on the way to President Bush’s State of the Union last Tuesday. Actually, a funny thing happened at President Bush’s State of the Union last Tuesday. That night, two very different women were ejected for wearing two very different politically-themed articles of clothing. One was anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, who wore an anti-war-in-Iraq t-shirt which read: “2,245 Dead. How Many More?” The other was Beverly Young, wife of a pro-war Republican congressman, whose own shirt bore the pro-war message: “Support the Troops. Defending Our Freedom.” Both women, it turned out, were wrongly ejected (and in Sheehan’s case arrested), as Capitol police later admitted the ban on politically-themed clothing was a nonexistent rule.
Now, personally, I think these women ought to be happy they were kicked out of the building. I think it’s safe to say that anyone who watched the State of the Union from home that evening spent most of their time just wishing somebody would come and drag them out of the room. (I’m not even sure why I watch these things anymore. I always zone out after ten minutes. Next year, I think I’m just going to turn the S.O.T.U. into a drinking game. Every time Hillary Clinton rolls her eyes or Charlie Rangel fails to get up for a standing ovation, I’m going to take a swig of Southern Comfort. I figure that’ll get me good and plastered by the end of the first half hour.) But I understand the First Amendment implications of Ms. Young and Ms. Sheehan being ejected, and I’m willing to say it more or less disgusts me.
However, only to a point.
Here’s the thing: I’m a fan of the First Amendment. Really, I am. And as a fan of the First Amendment, I believe it’s important to stick up for all kinds of free speech—even the kinds you don’t like. So as far as that goes, I think it’s annoying that these women were kicked out for wearing political clothing. But from a purely pragmatic perspective, I find it hard to get too riled up about this situation. As much as I want to get angry about Ms. Young and Ms. Sheehan’s First Amendment rights being trampled, I’d be lying if I said it truly irks me. And there’s a fairly simple reason for this. Essentially, it’s because I don’t get the feeling their shirts would’ve changed anything. Had they not been ejected, their “messages” wouldn’t’ve swayed anyone on either side of the war debate to second guess their existing opinions, much less change their minds. This goes for those present at the State of the Union, as well as those watching at home.
Take Ms. Young’s shirt, for example. As an anti-war person, “Support the Troops” does nothing for me. Why? Well, I could give you the standard anti-war answer and say it’s because supporting the troops has nothing to do with supporting the war. But that’s not why her shirt wouldn’t’ve swayed me. No. It’s because, to be quite honest, I don’t even know what “Support the Troops” means.
You probably think I’m just being facetious here. And even if I tell you, “I’m not saying this to be facetious,” you’ll probably only take that as a sign of further facetiousness. But seriously: When you say “Support the Troops,” I honestly don’t know what you want from me. Am I supposed to send them money? Bake them cookies? Hold their feet while they do sit-ups? I mean, I know what you’re getting at when you use this expression. You’re saying you don’t want me to wish for the troops to be killed or injured. But I wasn’t going to wish for that anyway. So what of it?
It’s like a bumper sticker I saw a couple of months ago, which featured a picture of Old Glory with the words, “America Is Strong.” I looked at that for a moment, and the only thing I could think to say was, “And?” Obviously, I wasn’t challenging the bumper sticker’s assertion. America is strong. No doubt about it. But that’s like saying, “The Earth Is Bigger Than Pluto.” It may be true, but why is it on a bumper sticker? What am I supposed to take away from this?
The second phrase on Ms. Young’s shirt, “Defending Our Freedom,” was equally unconvincing. Not to sound like an ungrateful jerk or anything; I understand that our soldiers are making sacrifices. But I don’t really feel like my freedoms are on the line in Iraq at the moment. Maybe they are. But if so, I’m more concerned with how they got over there in the first place. I mean, they’re my freedoms, aren’t they? Shouldn’t they be over here with the rest of my things? I’m going to need some answers to those questions if “Defending Our Freedom” is going to work as a pro-war argument for me.
The bottom line is, Ms. Young’s shirt represented everything the pro-war movement isn’t doing to win me over right now. I believe the president is right when he says we’re living in a dangerous world, and I believe he’s right when he says there are folks in this world who desperately want to kill us. But to date, no one has given me any reason to believe it’s okay that the war in Iraq was based on faulty—or, as the Brits say, “sexed up”—intelligence. I’m just told to support it because I’m supposed to support it. This seems sort of empty to me. Obviously, I see the strategic value in winning Iraq, but until someone reconciles why the heck we’re there to begin with, phrases like “Support the Troops” and “Defending Our Freedom” won’t go very far for me.
At the same time, I don’t believe Ms. Sheehan’s anti-war t-shirt would’ve spoken to pro-war Americans any better than Ms. Young’s shirt spoke to the anti-war crowd. That’s because pro-war Americans believe the war is justified. Once you believe that, you’ve accepted that soldiers are going to be killed. And if you accept that, “2,245 Dead” becomes just as abstract as the concepts of troop support and freedom defense. I mean, 2,245 is a lot, but it’s just a single number. For all intents and purposes, it has the same value as 1.
Furthermore, you’ve got to remember it’s not just 2,245 dead American soldiers. It’s 2,245 dead American soldiers stretched out over three years. Is it a travesty? Sure. But all things considered, it’s probably not so many. After all, more people than that died in a single day on 9/11. In fact, more people than that die every single day. Which isn’t to say that each human life isn’t precious. Certainly, every life is. But if I support the war, then that’s not what I’m thinking when you tell me America’s lost 2,245 soldiers. I’m thinking: Does that number impress me? And the answer to that question is: A little. But not enough to stop the war.
I don’t want this column to come across as an outright condemnation of two women bold enough to exercise their First Amendment rights. I’m not criticizing them for wearing those shirts to the State of the Union (though I do question their fashion sense; both of them looked like they just came from a Dale Jarrett meet-and-greet at a Kmart in North Carolina). But when you consider what those shirts represented, this incident makes one thing clear: Both sides of the war debate seem to want what’s best for our soldiers, yet the sides can’t agree on what’s really “best” for them. One side thinks we just need to thank our soldiers and get behind them; the other thinks we should simply bring them home. To me, this makes what happened at the State of the Union not just an issue of free speech but an issue of two sides speaking totally different languages.
I’m not sure if there’s any way around this. But if nothing else, I would guess that’s why both sides see the other as so terribly confused.