Kevin Tillman is a real American hero.
Watching him testify before a Congressional committee yesterday about the cover-up of his brother's death reminded me that nearly 50 years ago, I won the lottery in this life: I was born a citizen of the United States of America.
There are countries all over this world where a person who did what he did - step into a public sphere and challenge a government that lied about its complicity in the death of his brother, another American hero - could be arrested, jailed or might just quietly disappear one night.
That won't happen to Tillman for his testimony, and it won't happen to me for this essay, because citizens of this country are protected by the First Amendment. Those 45 words guarantee us the right to assemble, to speak to each other about how the country should be run, and to go to leaders we elect and tell them what we decided. They also guarantee that media can act as a conduit for that discussion, so everybody who couldn't be there can know what was decided and/or what our leaders did when we told them our decision.
Tillman accused the military of "intentional falsehoods" and "deliberate and careful misrepresentations" for the story it crafted about his brother's death in Afghanistan.
"We believe this narrative was intended to deceive the family but more importantly the American public," Tillman said. "Pat's death was clearly the result of fratricide," he added, contending that the military's misstatements amounted to "fraud."
The national media let us down when they failed to independently verify the propaganda our government gave us about the death of Pat Tillman and the rescue of Jessica Lynch. They did a better job yesterday, televising the testimony Tillman and Lynch gave to members of Congress about the lies our government crafted around their lives to manipulate public opinion about a war it clearly knew was going terribly wrong.
Pat Tillman died on April 22, 2004, in eastern Afghanistan. He was shot by fellow Army Rangers who thought they were responding to enemy fire as they emerged from an ambush in a narrow canyon. Reports later found that dozens of soldiers knew right away that Tillman had been killed by his colleagues. Yet, Army officials reported that he was killed by the enemy as he led his team to help another group of ambushed soldiers.
Why would our government lie to us about Tillman's death? Why the elaborate charade and phony story? What else was going on at this time that could compete for news coverage and shape our impressions of the war or threaten those in power?
About five weeks earlier, a decorated Vietnam War hero had clinched the Democratic nomination for the general election a few months away. Even more pressing was the need to counter reports of the torture at Abu Ghraib that were beginning to surface that very week.
"Revealing that Pat's death was a fratricide would have been yet another political disaster in a month of political disasters ... so the truth needed to be suppressed," said the surviving Tillman, who was in a convoy behind his brother when the incident happened but didn't see it.
Why might the national press have taken the bait?
Many of them were having dinner with Bush that week (May 1) at the ritual White House Correspondents Dinner. And they applauded loudly when the president shamelessly played the Tillman card, saying:
The loss of Army Corporal Pat Tillman last week in Afghanistan brought home the sorrow that comes with every loss, and reminds us of the character of the men and women who serve on our behalf. Friends say that this young man saw the images of September the 11th, and seeing that evil, he felt called to defend America...
Corporal Tillman asked for no special attention. He was modest because he knew there were many like him, making their own sacrifices. They fill the ranks of the Armed Forces. Every day, somewhere, they do brave and good things without notice. Their courage is usually seen only by their comrades, by those who long to be free, and by the enemy. They're willing to give up their lives, and when one is lost, a whole world of hopes and possibilities is lost with them.
This evening, we think of the families who grieve, and the families that wait on a loved one's safe return. We count ourselves lucky that this new generation of Americans is as brave and decent as any before it. (Applause.) And we honor with pride and wonder the men and women who carry the flag and the cause of the United States.
We know from a pair of reports released last month that nine high-ranking Army officers, including four generals, were party to the erroneous reporting of Pat Tillman's death.
I believe Kevin Tillman when he said yesterday, "It's a little disingenuous to think the administration didn't know."
So, now, three years after this pack of lies crafted to sustain a war built on another pack of lies, we have the spectacle of the Bush administration telling us that Congress is not supporting our troops when it is sending him the $127 billion he asked them for, because it also contains a frame for getting our soldiers out of this immoral war.
The president who used Pat Tillman's death to seduce applause from a press corps whose primary job is to watch and tell us what he is doing in our name is going to veto this appropriation bill. Then, he's going to tell those same reporters he isn't responsible for money not flowing to the troops.
To those reporters, I beg: Use the First Amendment as it was intended. Remember Pat Tillman. Call out the president on this lie.
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