Dissent must be tolerated - or we've lost the war

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All wars have their side effects, some intentional or predictable, some not. Some are the same from one war to the next, although to different degrees. These include an upsurge in patriotic fervor, an expansion of presidential powers, and shifts in government spending from civilian to military needs.

The war in Afghanistan is marked by an unprecedented wave of public bellicosity and intolerance of dissent, more even than in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Congress enacted a law providing the government with enhanced surveillance and intelligence collection powers and called it the "USA Patriot Act" - as though it were an expression of patriotism instead of necessity and as though questioning any part of it were expressing a lack of patriotism.

A high school student in Virginia was ostracized by her peers for doubting the war. Her teachers called her questions "inappropriate." What they should have done was use the questions as a launching pad for rational discussion while taking quiet satisfaction that they had taught her to ask them. What do they think an education is for? Any student who asks an honest question deserves an honest answer, not disapproval. It may be a long time before she asks another - and still we worry about why our schools don't educate.

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Television networks have been criticized for being insufficiently patriotic in their coverage of the war. CNN ordered its anchors to include reminders of American civilian casualties on Sept. 11 in reports of Afghan civilian casualties during US bombing.

Like most of his predecessors in similar situations, George W. Bush has taken advantage of it to add to the already considerable powers of the president and the executive branch.

The FBI, always noted for its aggressiveness, has become more so and has grown into a worldwide counterintelligence force.

Hitherto sacrosanct lawyer-client conversations can now be intercepted. Is the government next going to want to bug priests' confessionals?

Some of these new executive orders have nothing to do with terrorism. An example is assertion of a presidential right to overrule both Congress and prior presidents to prevent the release of presidential papers. President Bush argues nonexistent constitutional powers, a thin and insupportable ground. Nor is there any reason. One therefore has to look for hidden reasons.

Could it be to cover up his father's knowledge of the Iran-Contra scandal, which the elder Bush denied while he was vice president during the Reagan administration?

Wars also result in an undesirable but unavoidable shift in the allocation of federal resources from civilian to military purposes. This is complicated now by the recession with consequent unemployment and therefore greater demands on states for Medicaid and welfare. It also causes hardships in our allies from Mexico to Pakistan, because we are buying fewer of their consumer goods.

The effect of shifting use of resources is most egregious in the case of education. In the present instance, federal expenditures for education are not going down. On the contrary, Congress just voted to increase them; but state and local revenues, which provide the bulk of education resources, have suffered a double whammy. Even before the war started, the recession was causing a decline in state and local revenues. The way in which the war started caused a decline in travel, additionally affecting taxes on hotel and motel rooms.

These taxes are especially popular with localities, because they are paid by out-of-towners who do not vote locally.

This points up the need, now particularly ill-timed, for a massive shift in school financing from states and localities to the federal government. There is a long tradition in the United States of local control of schools. That needs to be preserved as far as possible, but the hard reality is that a massive increase in spending is the only way to attract more and better teachers and that, in turn, is the only way to bring significant improvement.

Despite our preoccupation with terrorism, we must remember that the kids in our public schools today are the leaders who will determine our position 30 and 40 years from now. The education they miss now is likely never to be made up.

Above all, we want to avoid becoming like our adversaries in losing the freedoms of our open society. If we do that, then even if we capture Osama bin Laden and destroy Al Qaeda, we will have lost the war.

Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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