Oct 282007

Conservative writer Austin Hill has praise for Bill Clinton’s words, “How dare you.”

As he then attempted to continue with his address, another heckler shouted at President Clinton, claiming that the terrorist attacks had been an “inside job.”

“An inside job?” Clinton retorted, with indignation in his voice. “How dare you. How dare you! It was NOT an inside job!”

In a matter of a few seconds, former President Clinton used a spontaneous moment with rude people in his midst to communicate to a fearful, skeptical American people. What was the message he conveyed? That the worst suspicions about our country and government are not to be tolerated, and certainly not to be believed.

I beg to differ. I think it’s fine that Clinton confronted the hecklers, and it’s fine to tell them they’re nuts or to make fun of them. And it’s fine to have them carted away if they’re not letting him speak.

But to say, “How dare you?” That implies they should not be allowed to say such things. In fact, that’s the message Austin Hill took away, as indicated by his words, “not to be tolerated.” Our Bill of Rights gives people the right to say crazy things. That’s how they dare say that. We do need to tolerate such words; otherwise we’re not much better than those who took down the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

I realize it might just have been a manner of speaking, and that Clinton may not really have meant this kind of speech should not be allowed. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hyper-literal.

On the other hand, maybe in Clinton’s case we should parse his words very carefully and take them seriously. I am reminded of this incident from 1995, as told by Todd S. Purdum in the NYT:

This area is also a stronghold of anti-Government paramilitary groups, and Mr. Clinton addressed them tonight in a question from the daughter of a worker in the Federal Bureau of Land Management, who said the Oklahoma City bombing had left her afraid for his safety.

“The most important thing we can do to make your father safer is to have everybody in this room, whatever their political party or their view, stand up and say it is wrong to condemn people who are out there doing their job, and wrong to threaten them,” Mr. Clinton said. “And when you hear somebody doing it, you ought to stand up and double up your fist and stick it in the sky and shout them down.”

Shout them down? That’s the way dissidents may have been handled in the beginning days of Nazi Germany. But that’s not the sort of behavior the Leader of the Free World should be encouraging.

If people were a physical threat to this woman’s father, that should be reported to the police. If they were just criticizing him for working for the government, that is their right. And it is her right to criticize them back. Or to ignore them, if that would seem to be more effective.

But for an American president to be advising people to be shouted down is to encourage mob rule and the voice of unreason. He should be upholding the right of people to dare to say what the voices in their head are telling them, secure in the knowledge that we are upholding a country where reason and evidence will stand against it. Telling crackpots that they dare not speak vindicates their conspiracy theorizing in their own minds, and lends them credibility. What we need to do is bring these people and their crackpot ideas out into the sunshine, not shove them into a closet.

And speaking of sunshine, what was on those papers that Sandy Berger stuffed into his shorts, anyway?