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July 7, 2005 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
Vol. 3, No. 9

  The tsunami that would engulf us
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

I've been thinking about tsunamis and what people do in the face of them. The thing that was hardest to take about the tsunami in Asia, I thought, was the fact that people stood right in front of it and watched it coming in on them. They took pictures of it so they could talk to friends about it later, stood on the beach and waited for it to roll thunderously in -- and seemed not to have a clue about its danger, its devastation, its total destruction of both a place and a life-style.

If anything, the ocean looked placid and steady only moments before, but without so much as a flash of warning, it washed back dry of anything that even hinted of a turn of tide and then drowned the area in a matter of seconds.

I simply could not understand how it was that people could stand there fixed, cameras in hand, and look at something so dangerous in the making and never move. Never flinch. Never cry out. Never even attempt to sound a warning that what they had always taken for granted had now insidiously, silently, apparently disappeared, gone and left them helpless before it's damaging surge.

But the truth is that the tsunami had actually been a long time in coming. It had roared in for miles while people stood by and stared at it.

I get the idea often that we may be doing exactly the same thing now as the people on the beach did then. We say almost nothing as we stand and watch the political tsunami roar in and endanger our entire way of life.

Some people tell me, with a hint of embarrassment, that they are simply so depressed by what they see going on around them -- the death of more and more civilians every day in Iraq, the re-emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the sabotage that leaves another million innocent civilians in Baghdad without electricity and water for no one knows how long, the death and wounding of more U.S. soldiers, the trumpeting of "liberation" and "democracy" and "victory" in the face of destruction, the farce of it all -- that they can no longer even watch the news.

"I think I'm hiding," one person said to me. "I simply can't stand it any more so I'm ignoring it. I feel guilty about that, too," he said. And maybe he should, because while we're not watching anymore, there are other riptides forming that, in the end, could destroy our way of life more decisively than any outside attacker could ever hope to do.

While we stand on the beach, unaware of the danger, and watch the water roaring toward us, in Washington, D.C., a federal prosecutor is arguing that the reporters who told the truth about the criminal involvement of White House officials in leaking the name of an undercover CIA agent -- a federal offense -- are themselves the criminals for refusing to divulge their sources. "Journalists are not entitled to promise complete confidentiality," Federal Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald argues. "No one in America is." And while the judge is jailing reporters, that kind of statement carries ominous implications for the Fifth Amendment, protection from self-incrimination and the role of anonymous whistle-blowers in years to come.

Point: The case may look simple but the stakes are high.

At first glance the situation seems clear. Reporters should tell government officials the names of those from whom they get their information about possible criminal activity. After all, lawbreaking is a federal offense. If reporters have knowledge of a crime, they must report it, -- and those who reported it, in the first place -- it seems. But it is possible that generations before us knew better.

Thomas Carlyle, in 1841 in a famous analysis of the Estates-General of France -- the first parliamentary representation of clergy, nobles and commoners or the First, Second and Third Estates that resulted from the French Revolution -- identified a Fourth Estate, the press, whose obligation was to watchdog the other three. These, Carlyle argued, were the real guardians of democracy.

Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have shield laws -- and at least 10 others judicial precedents -- protecting reporters from being forced to divulge their sources. Today, legislation to guarantee similar federal protection for reporters has been introduced in Congress.

The Supreme Court itself in 1971 refused to ban the publication of the Pentagon Papers which exposed to the country the classified history of the Vietnam War and enabled this nation to make a new decision about the advisability -- the morality -- of our military involvement there.

Nor was The Washington Post ever forced to reveal the identity of Mark Felt for his role in the investigation of the Watergate scandal.

Why? Because when that starts happening, people with important information -- material the country needs to know -- may very well, out of fear of intimidation, stop talking to anyone at all. It is a powerful weapon of a fascist state. It verges on a new kind of totalitarianism. It enables a government to identify, intimidate, punish and control members of an administration who see wrong but have no way to right it themselves without the help of investigative reporters.

It appears to be a case of two goods in tension: one, the right of a grand jury to secret information and the other, the right of the general public to know the character and operational procedures of their government. But when the general public loses the freedom of the Fourth Estate, the other three estates -- clergy, congresspersons and administration -- will be free to do anything they want without fear of exposure.

From where I stand, it's clear: The waters are even now gathering in the ocean of politics that could destroy democracy as we have known it. The question is which of the two evils -- protection of reporters or exposure of sources -- is the worst? And will we simply stand back and watch the wave coming straight at us -- or will we defend what we have by supporting this latest Congressional attempt to guard a reporter's right to protect their sources before it's too late?

Whichever choice we make, Judith Miller of The New York Times, now incarcerated, not for publishing a story on the subject but simply for interviewing a source whose name she intends to keep secret, may be carrying the future for us all.

By the way, for those of you who are wondering what Robert Novak, the reporter who first used the agent's name in his column, told the grand jury about his own sources, we're sorry to inform you that you may never know. You see, testimony before a grand jury is confidential.

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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