Senator Johnson, the isolationist Republican from California, coined a neat phrase when protesting America's entry into World War I: "The first casualty, when war comes, is truth."
There is a lot to the senator's observation. Propaganda, censorship, and fabricated atrocity stories are familiar counterpoints to battlefield bravery.
But Hiram Johnson's phrase has been contorted by leading editors in Western democracies to protest government actions intended to protect their citizens in the war on terror. In the new script, the first casualty of the war is freedom of the press. This is nothing more than narcissism on stilts.
The culture of complaint I find indulgent is typified in the 52-page document issued earlier this year by the International Federation of Journalists — 52 alarm bells. The federation describes the response of government to terrorism as "a devastating challenge to the global culture of human rights established almost 60 years ago … we are sleepwalking into a surveillance society."
A devastating challenge to the global culture of human rights?
Speaking personally of challenges to human rights, I'd rather be photographed by a hidden surveillance camera than travel on a train with men carrying bombs in their backpacks. I'd regard being blown to bits on the street as more of an intrusion of privacy than having an identity card. I don't protest some curtailment of freedom of expression: Incitement to murder should not be protected.
After all, the true first casualties of the war are the people who have been murdered by terrorists in New York, London, Kabul, Madrid, Istanbul, Delhi, Bali, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Morocco, Amsterdam, Jerusalem, Egypt, and Pakistan. The tens of thousands of civilian noncombatants who have died in Iraq. The defense forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. The American and British militaries with 3,000 who have given their lives and more than 20,000 wounded. The frontline reporters who are being killed, nearly 500 in the last 10 years.
Yet there lingers some delusion in segments of the press that the jihadist campaign is just another civil rights movement. A questioner at an international gathering of editors I attended in Edinburgh in May suggested that blame for the murders of journalists in Iraq — most of them Iraqi — rested with President Bush's refusal to acknowledge the Geneva Conventions. Jonathan Swift said it well. You cannot reason someone out of a position he has not been reasoned into.
Perhaps my beloved Britain has endured some of the worst excesses. When I spoke at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival a couple of years back and criticized newspapers that headlined suicide bombers as martyrs, I was told by two angry leading intellectuals that I had lived too long in America.
Something similar happened at this year's Hay-on-Wye festival, sponsored by the Guardian, where a five-person panel discussed "Are there are any limits to free speech?" One of the Muslim panelists said if anyone offended his religion, he would strike him. A lawyer, Anthony Julius, responded that Jews had lived as minorities under two powerful hegemonies, Christian and Muslim, and had been obliged to learn how to deal nonviolently with offense caused to them by the sacred scriptures of both. He started by referring to an anti-Semitic passage in the New Testament — which passed without comment. But when he began to list the passages in the Koran that denigrate Jews, describing them as monkeys and pigs, the panelists went ballistic. One of them, Madeline Bunting of the Guardian, put her hand over the microphone and said words to the effect, "I am not going to sit here and listen to any criticisms of Muslims." She was cheered, and not one of the journalists in the audience from right or left uttered a word about free speech — not hate speech, mind you, but free speech of a moderate nature.
It is understandable that the leaders of the Muslim community are sensitive to a stereotype of Muslims as enemies of the people. The vast majority — in Britain and certainly here — are decent, law-abiding citizens, and they deserve our sympathy and respect. But it is undeniable that terrorist crimes are committed by Muslims, and leaders in their communities have an obligation to denounce the jihadists. Symptomatic of the moral queasiness is the protest in Britain by 38 Islamic organizations, together with three members of the House of Commons and three of the House of Lords, who blame terrorism not on the jidhadists but on the foreign policy of Tony Blair and George Bush.
This attitude is, at the least, unhistorical. Islamic radicals were using Afghanistan as a base to plot murder, climaxing in 9/11, long before the ill-judged invasion of Iraq. In fact, they were plotting when the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was moving to a peaceful resolution. By attacking Mr. Blair instead of Osama bin Laden, the protesters in the Muslim community and their nursemaids in news organizations give the radicals a free pass and feed a sense of grievance among perennially disgruntled youth. Maybe the latest terrorist news — a plot to flood the subways under the Thames — will give second thoughts to all those well-meaning battalions of left and right and leaders of the Muslim community who have yet to see an anti-terrorism measure they approve.
The free pass is extraordinary in light of the deaths in Britain, the conviction last week of a man plotting to blow up the London subways, and the public warning last week by the head of British intelligence, who traditionally remains anonymous, that 30 more plots were in the offing.
These are the topics that should be worrying the press and broadcast organizations — that for all their brilliant staffers, resources, and reputation for authenticity, they can be fooled, and it is left to investigative Web sites to shout foul. In the Lebanon war this past summer, celebrated newspapers and television stations worldwide carried pictures showing that Israel had targeted two International Red Cross ambulances — a fabrication of Hezbollah that investigative Web sites ultimately exposed.
It should be the other way around. It is the Web that needs monitoring by journalists. For, as well as a searchlight, the Web is also a sewer without health inspectors, where evils grow like viruses. The conviction among Muslims worldwide that 9/11 was a Jewish plot began on the Internet and has a permanent cave there. The press should worry more about exposing such lies rather than fretting about its rights.
At the conference of editors in Edinburgh, one delegate was asked whether before September 11 she would have published the fact that the CIA had found a way to listen in on Osama's satellite telephone calls. She said she certainly would have because there could be no limit on the public's right to know.
Several newspapers that did know about the satellite calls forbore, but the Washington Times published that leak. And lo and behold, Osama never used that connection again. Just conceivably, 3,000 died on 9/11 because of that "right to know."
There has been a hue and cry over the revelation that America has been data mining — not listening to phone calls of Joe Everyman talking to his girl friend, but sorting millions of calls to see if the dots connect known terrorists to others. In the Cold War, Ben Bradlee, the renowned editor of the Washington Post discovered that the U.S. Navy had come across a sunken Soviet nuclear submarine. The administration told him publication would lose them the chance to study the codebooks and learn of the Soviet planning measures for nuclear war. He trusted the administration and held off.
Nowadays we have a right wing that is trigger happy, misconstruing legitimate inquiry as treason, while the left never wants to hazard its self-righteous sense of moral purity. And we have an administration that is the most secretive in American history. They have forgotten Frederick the Great's axiom, if they ever knew it, that if you try to keep everything secret, you will end up safeguarding nothing. Its deceptions and rewriting of documents has forfeited a lot of trust.
But all of us concerned with civil liberties must reflect on this: If a rush to publish in any way enables more outrages comparable to 9/11 in America or 7/7 in London, or Madrid, the public reaction will produce far graver results for civil liberties than anything seen so far.
There can be no security without freedom — but no freedom without security.
This is an abridgement of remarks made on Monday at the Hudson Institute by Sir Harold, editor of the Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981 and of the Times of London from 1981 to 1982.