Goodbye to Free Speech: Hello to More Militarism

Since the attack led by Hamas against Israel, in which many innocent civilians were killed, I have been unable to read articles in the mass media. The latter is somewhat similar to the reaction to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. The constant replay of the Twin Towers burning and ultimately crumbling to the ground was in stark contrast to the summer night in August 1970, when I went up to the roof of my graduate dormitory at New York University and saw the green glow of work lights that seemed almost within reach coming from the towers in the Wall Street district of Manhattan.

Comparing that summer night from long ago to the falling bodies from the Twin Towers was impossible to comprehend. Some people have a deep-seated aversion to inhumanity.

It is often impossible to carry such different images, along with their meanings, with no way of reconciling them. Following the attacks of September 11th, it was impossible to express views that encompassed these sentiments in the mass media. It was forbidden! It wasn’t an issue of condemnation: it was an issue of erasure. Dissident voices vanished. Even though members of al-Qaeda were certainly not leftists, US leftists were not welcome to the table for discussion.

We live in a world in which sane discourse and sane actions are increasingly marginalized. The current war between Palestine and Israel immediately left the realm of anything resembling sanity. Many on college campuses and on the streets have been condemned for expressing their views about this decades-old conflict. Calls and actions in places like Germany, France, and England to criminalize expressions of support for the people of Palestine have been successful. The First Amendment to the US Constitution makes criminalizing speech, even hate speech, a more nuanced issue.

At N.Y.U., Ryna Workman, the president of the university’s Student Bar Association, wrote in a message to the group on Tuesday that ‘Israel bears full responsibility for this tremendous loss of life.’

‘This regime of state-sanctioned violence created the conditions that made resistance necessary,’ Mx. Workman wrote in the Student Bar Association bulletin. ‘I will not condemn Palestinian resistance.’  (“N.Y.U. Law Student Sends Anti-Israel Message and Loses a Job Offer,” October 11, 2023, New York Times)

A job offer from the law firm Winton & Strawn was withdrawn by the evening on which Mx. Workman issued her statement on the war saying those statements “profoundly conflict” with the company’s “values.”  The dean of the law school, Troy A. McKenzie, repudiated Mx. Workman’s remarks and added, “This message was not from N.Y.U. School of Law as an institution and does not speak for the leadership of the law school.”

When innocent life is lost in war, no matter where and when, those actions demand condemnation. In the US, however, there is some history of defending the speech of those who may make statements different from others. However, in times of war, that right has been criminalized or diminished. Many were sent to jail, lost jobs, or were deported for speaking out and protesting during times of war. World War I was a prime example. Certainly, a law school of the standing of NYU realizes that the First Amendment protects speech that is seen as atypical or abhorrent to some. A discussion of how human life has become so devalued across the globe might have been part of that dialogue. A discussion of how human life has been marginalized in war zones as collateral damage might have been part of that dialogue. A discussion of the denial of the right of the Palestinian people to a state may have been part of that dialogue. A discussion about how every answer now seems to be a military one may have been part of that dialogue.

But dialogue is now almost forbidden, as the masters of war gather again and again and again in the Middle East ad nauseam. Human life, particularly the lives of the innocent in the Gaza Strip, Israel, Ukraine, and in many, many other places has been rendered subservient to the dictates of lawlessness and bestiality.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).