|"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what
makes us important to the people around us."
A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is
a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary
spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women,
a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East.
A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward),
a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. She is founder and executive director of
Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary
spirituality in Erie.
|By Joan Chittister, OSB
Heres a story we might need to worry about a bit. In 1918
during World War I, The New York Times reports, 79 Montanans were
convicted of sedition for speaking out in ways deemed critical of the
Forty-one of them got prison terms of one to 20 years and were fined
from $200 to $20,000. In one case, 12 children of one family were put up for
adoption after the father went to prison and the family farm failed. One of
these children, now 90, is still alive. She will be present for the ceremony in
which the present governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer, pardons these
German-Americans, one of whom went to jail for saying that the food regulations
put in place during the war were a big joke.
Sedition. Convictions. Jail sentences. Pardons for being critical of
government policies. Impossible? Dont be too sure. It looks as if we
could launch a few witch hunts ourselves these days.
James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times and Dana
Priest of The Washington Post were just awarded journalisms
highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, for their stories on our secret torture
chambers in Eastern European countries and domestic spying on U.S.
As I understand it, Bill Bennett, former secretary of education, would
like, on the other hand, to put these three reporters in jail.
Bennett was clear in his condemnation of that kind of journalism. He
said that the reporters took classified information, secret information,
published it in their newspapers, against the wishes of the president, against
the request of the president and others that they not release it.
Nothing to be doubted here. Bennett calls these journalists traitors. He
says they ought to be in prison rather than picking up prizes.
I dont think what they did was worthy of an award, he
said. I think what they did was worthy of jail. These people who reveal
our secrets, who hurt our war effort, who hurt the efforts of our CIA, who hurt
efforts of the presidents people -- they shouldnt be given awards
for this. They should be looked into (through) the Espionage Act.
He did not, however, say anything about the presidents
selective declassification -- leak, in common parlance -- of
classified material for political reasons. To bolster his defense of the
invasion of Iraq, the reason for which was beginning to unravel, Bush, we know
now, had aides leak what to that point had been classified but unsubstantiated
material. So, we have to assume that if Bennett wants reporters in jail for
publishing material that hurt our war effort, hurt the efforts of our
CIA, hurt efforts of the presidents people, he must mean the
Who, in fact, endangers the country more: A president by lying about the
certain need for pre-emptive war, domestic spying or outsourced torture sites
or journalists by telling the truth about the corner-cutting on the
After all, not only was classified material leaked by the
president -- former chief of staff to the vice president Lewis Libbys
word, not mine -- it was suspect. Knowingly suspect.
The presidents own intelligence community said it could not be
verified. But the president used it anyway to justify what could not be
justified. It was error upon error -- or treason upon treason -- if we apply
Mr. Bennetts value system broadly. And since Bill Bennett has become the
Value Czar of the country, probably we should.
But thats the obvious -- and almost irrelevant -- part of the
situation. The real question is what, if anything, will be left of the checks
and balance structure of the republic if we begin to jail reporters for telling
us what we need to know to preserve the Constitution and the character of the
Ironically enough, the very week the Pulitzer Prize was awarded, Mark
Felt appeared on national TV to discuss his guiding role as Deep
Throat in exposing the Watergate cover-up and the eventual resignation of
Question: Should Bernstein and Woodward have gone to jail rather than
Chuck Colson, Gordon Liddy, and Bob Haldeman, who planned the robbery and,
worse, the cover-up by the Oval Office?
Think carefully here. The whole future of the country may be at
What will happen to this democracys commitment to the Fourth
Estate, that institution of protected public voice that emerged out of the
French Revolution to act as a brake on the human tendency to autocratic
pretensions even in republics? If the media are denied the right to uncover and
publish acts of government wrongdoing, what will happen to democracy
If we begin to jail journalists for telling us what we have a right -- a
need -- to know about the way any given administration is frittering away the
Constitution, the nations integrity will at best be the stuff of history.
We will be one more banana republic governed by successive gangs of
opportunists, thugs and despots.
If journalists are denied the right to investigate those who do not
investigate themselves, how is this country to have any hope of stopping
corruption in its tracks, of really being the country we have always thought
ourselves to be?
From where I stand, when it becomes traitorous for an American reporter
to let Americans know about torture being done in their name or the domestic
spying to which their neighbors are being subjected, we wont need
newspapers anyway. Collections of fairy tales will do. That, it seems, is a lot
of what were getting right now anyway -- and that goes for what they
claim are our values.
Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister,
c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.
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