09/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Iraq War: Too Important for Town Halls?

Nothing like a town hall meeting about health care reform to get people all riled up. This is what life in a free society is all about, you know, public forums where citizens can wave signs of protest and shout "You're a liar!" at their elected representatives.

Leaders in both parties have said it's important to have these gatherings because the issue requires a wide ranging debate that gives all Americans a chance to voice their concerns. Republicans have been especially vocal in asserting that any new legislation can't be "rushed" through Congress and the deliberative process must proceed in a careful, methodical manner.

All of which leads me to this question: If everyone agrees that major issues affecting the entire population for decades to come should have this kind of thorough national discussion, how come there were no town hall meetings back in 2003 to debate the wisdom of sending an American military expedition into the Middle East to invade a country that hadn't attacked us?

None of the Republicans in Congress seemed worried about rushing into a complicated situation back then. Quite the contrary, the entire effort of the Bush-Cheney team was focused on convincing America that haste was vitally important, and taking time to carefully weigh the consequences of invading and occupying Iraq would be stupid and dangerous.

Day after day the administration kept insisting that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, our intelligence agencies had solid evidence of his evil intentions, and we had to act before he came after us. The White House storyline was: We're all in real, imminent, obvious danger.' It was calculated to be frightening and compelling.

One prominent politician did challenge the rush to war. On February 12, 2003, Robert Byrd spoke to a mostly-empty senate chamber and chided his colleagues for being "silent--ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war. There is nothing."

Why was there nothing? Because Bush and Cheney created a climate of fear and paranoia that was essentially critic-proof. Anyone who resisted it could be ridiculed and reviled as an idiot, coward, traitor, or all three combined.

Again and again the war promoters assured us it would be quick and cheap. But that prediction, like the claims of hidden WMDs and Saddam¹s intentions of using them against us, turned out to be disastrously false. No one can say for sure what the final price tag will be for this experiment in creating a model democracy.

Our wounded causalities number in the tens of thousands, and many of those injured warriors will require ongoing treatment for many years into the future. Their medical needs will be provided by the Veterans Administration, and I wonder if that fact causes anger and outrage among the anti-tax, tea-bag wavers who want the government to stay away from any
involvement in the health care system?

How about it, tea-baggers? Who among you wants to be first to stand up at a public meeting and shout, "Abolish the VA! Get those injured vets off the taxpayers' backs! Let the free market determine their insurance coverage!"

Frankly, I'm all for scheduling town hall meetings on health care reform at every possible opportunity. Let's hear from everyone; the rude, the respectful, and the ridiculous. Putting all those opinions out in the open, picking each one apart, and separating truth from fiction helps democracy stay healthy.

The fact that we never had any kind of national debate before rushing
into a misguided, unnecessary war can be described in one word: sickening.