We bring this up now because this week a bunch of folks suggested that I write today in support of the Seattle Times' decision last week to run Tami Silicio's photo of flag-draped coffins of deceased U.S. soldiers on their way home from Iraq. Yes I, Dr. Wes Browning, will personally stick my neck out right here on this page, and take a stand in favor of free speech and opposed to totalitarianism.
Let me sum up my position up right now, so that those of you who need no convincing can go back to eating your egg salad sandwich or making out or whatever you were doing before this column interrupted you: Totalitarianism, bad. Government propaganda, bad. Government censorship and lies, bad. Free Speech, good.
As you surely know by now, as it's been in all the papers, Tami Silicio put the Times on the fast track to its next Pulitzer by giving them the opportunity to defy the Pentagon's ban on printing photos of flag-draped coffins of U.S. soldiers.
I'll tell you how clueless I was. I was so clueless it never occurred to me that the Pentagon had a ban on printing such photos. Oh, I figured there was a rule against printing photos in which the identities of the fallen soldiers were indicated, sure. But surely not photos where you couldn't tell who was in the coffins.
But, no. Our government has a rule against it, and commercial military contractors like Maytag Aircraft are understandably afraid to defy the Pentagon that hires them, so they let Silicio and her husband go, and they would have fired her little dog too, if she had one and it was in range.
Now, some kinds of censorship I expect. I'm not saying I'm in favor of any kind of censorship, but I won't get all huffy about it if the Times is denied their First Amendment right to show naked people copulating on their front page. While personally I believe it should be up to the Times to decide whether that would be a good choice, I'm willing to let the opposition have that one.
But this instance of censorship is inexcusable.
Yet, the government is making an excuse, and we are forced to answer it. The excuse is that the photo could offend some people among the families of the dead.
Answer number one: Very few relatives of dead U.S. servicemen have stepped forward to claim offense in this particular case, probably in part due to the fact that YOU CAN'T TELL WHO THE DEAD IN THE PICTURE ARE, FOR PETE'S SAKE. Hello, you can't even tell if the coffins are occupied. Sheesh.
Answer number two: The freedom at the press is at stake here. The first amendment doesn't say its OK for the government to practice censorship if someone might be offended by something.
By the way, it probably would offend George W. Bush's sensitivity were he to read this column (which can't happen 'cause he don't read, he only looks at pictures) if I were to say that he deserves to be impeached for dealing with the Saudi oil producers to influence the next election. Should I therefore be prevented from saying it? No, because the importance of being able to say such things outweighs any offense it may give George W. Bush.
I care much more about the feelings of the families of fallen servicemen than I do about those of Bush, but the principle remains the same. Their feelings, whether appropriate or not, don't trump the national interest. And in this case the national interest does not lie with the Pentagon. It lies with freedom of the press and the freedom of speech.