Earlier this week, over 40 U.S. servicemen dressed in army fatigues and Navy uniforms handed their medals back to the NATO brass who were gathered in Chicago for their annual Summit Conference. Or rather, they tried to hand them back, but the generals wouldn't take them. So the antiwar vets tossed the medals in the direction of the McCormick Place conference center.
You might have seen this on TV or the Internet. Or maybe you didn't see it, since the cops in Chicago arrested and allegedly attacked journalists, and reportedly smashed the cameras and equipment of some of those who were live-streaming this act of civil disobedience to the world.
Perhaps those police officers never read the parts of the U.S. Constitution which guarantee freedom of the press and the right of free assembly. Maybe they should take a refresher course on the fundamental liberties which Americans enjoy.
The police in Chicago were only the latest to allegedly attack journalists who were covering protests. This happened famously during the anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, and more recently during the Occupy Wall Street movement, when scores of journalists were arrested and their equipment confiscated when they attempted to cover the police clearing of the Zuccotti Park encampment last October.
We expect journalists to be attacked in places like Cairo, Yemen and the People's Republic of China, where the government authorities tightly control the flow of information. But why are they also targets in the U.S. when they are out there doing their job, reporting on protest demonstrations?
New York's Mayor Bloomberg said that journalists were barred from covering the police raid on Zuccotti Park in order "to protect members of the press," and "to prevent a situation from getting worse." Were the equipment and camera-smashing cops in Chicago also protecting the press? Or were they protecting the public from news which the police -- in their infinite wisdom -- deemed it better that we not receive?
When the press is physically attacked or barred from reporting, we are all attacked and excluded, our own first amendment rights are violated. That is because reporters are surrogates for the rest of us, they are our eyes and ears -- the eyes and ears of democracy itself, if it is not too grandiose to say it.
The dozens of veterans who tossed their medals in Chicago earlier this week deserve to have their protest recorded. Theirs was an act of valor and courage which was arguably equal if not greater to the deeds which earned them those medals in the first place. It must not have been easy to break with military tradition and admit that the wars they had volunteered for and participated in were a terrible mistake. When soldiers who have been there tell us that wars in which they themselves have shed blood, sweat and tears are wrongheaded and need to end, we should pay attention, all the more so when they have been awarded medals which attest to their valor in battle.
We may agree with their assessment, or not -- that is our own judgment call. But we owe their views our respect and attention. And when veterans engage in their constitutionally guaranteed right to protest, it should not be left up to the police to decide whether the rest of us get to witness their bold act of civil disobedience.