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October 1, 2005

I Gave My Copy of the Constitution to a Pro-War Veteran


by Brian J. Foley

The mother of one of the soldiers killed in Iraq caused a commotion near the Veterans for Peace photo display of the fallen soldiers at last weekend's big antiwar protest in Washington, DC. She stood in front of the pictures crying and yelling, demanding a piece of tape to cover her son's face. She said she wanted to block it out so her son could not be "used" by the "protesters" in their "propaganda."

An antiwar Marine vet who supported the display, yet understood what he called "a mother's grief," quietly handed her a piece of tape.

What the tape couldn't cover up, though, is that the woman's son already had been "used" by the US government. He was shipped to Iraq based on lies: Iraq never endangered the US. The same government is still using her son and other dead GIs to promote its war, claiming "we" must "stay the course" to "honor" the dead.

I didn't want to state these harsh truths to the grieving mother. I did try to explain, however, that Veterans for Peace was "using" the photographs to humanize the casualties, to convince Americans to stop politicians from sending more young people to die in Iraq.

The woman's husband and another pro-war veteran whose son also was killed in Iraq stepped in and shouted at me, saying they and other soldiers "protected our freedoms," and that I was "lucky" to be able to protest, "thanks to" the soldiers.

Of course soldiers have protected our freedoms, and we honor them for that. In fact, I saw nothing but appreciation from the protesters the loudest cheers of the day erupted when the Iraq Veterans Against the War marched by. (Veterans for Peace got the second loudest cheers.) We honor soldiers' good faith but oppose the politicians who needlessly dump them into danger.

I disagreed, however, with the claim that only soldiers protected our freedoms. Protesting against government policy, I said, protects our freedoms. So does my work as a lawyer and law professor, in its small way. Moreover, I continued, many Americans who never "served" have "protected our freedoms." Citizens who break unjust laws to challenge them in court protect our freedoms. Men who burned their draft cards, or who refused to give the government the power to force them to fight in wars, protected our freedoms. Artists who push boundaries protect our freedoms.

I focused on the freedom of speech and said everyone had a right to protest.

The main threat to our freedom of speech (and our other liberties), I continued, was our own government. To strengthen that point, I pulled out my pocket copy of the US Constitution and read the First Amendment out loud. It doesn't mention foreign threats. It warns against our own government's violating our freedom of the press, of speech, of assembly, of petitioning the government, of religion.

Americans who criticize the protesters should read our Constitution. This includes Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), who told Sunday's small pro-war "counter-protest," "The group who spoke here the other day did not represent the American ideals of freedom, liberty, and spreading that around the world. I frankly don't know what they represent, other than to blame America first."

The people at last Saturdays protest were guarding all our freedoms, including the soldiers' freedoms including their right not to be used by their own government to wage an unjustifiable war that benefits only a few elites. The protesters didn't represent "blame America first"; they represented the ideals in our Constitution.

One of the men I'd been arguing with looked at my battered copy of the Constitution and asked, "Is that for me?" I've carried that little book around with me for years, and I'm attached to it. But something came over me, and I handed it to him. I asked him to read it. He said he would and walked away.

Perhaps he will read it. And then perhaps he and other pro-war veterans and parents of soldiers killed in Iraq will vent their rage at the government, and its pom-pom boys such as Senator Sessions. Thanks to the protesters and other Americans who've stood up to our government, they'll be able to do that when they figure out who's really using their sons.

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Brian J. Foley is a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law.

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