Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Enemies within

The demonization of mere opponents is a dangerous practice

Issue: "Save the unions," Oct. 24, 2009

In the early days of a marriage, disagreements are terribly personal. Husband and wife have pledged to become one. They understand, in theory, that they are acting as a unit. But the actual practice is difficult: When our spouse disagrees on how to spend the tax refund or where to go for Thanksgiving, we're not just disappointed-we're thwarted. Who is this person who stands foursquare in our way? Who is this obstruction? He (she) is the enemy.

The casting of a spouse as the enemy is a danger sign; if it becomes habitual, the marriage is in trouble. And (leaping from the personal to the political), if the leaders of a nation view their political opposition not merely as mistaken, but as evil and destructive, the nation is in trouble.

Early in the 2004 presidential campaign, I recall a debate among the throng of Democratic candidates: John Kerry, John Edwards, Howard Dean, Joseph Lieberman, Dennis Kucinich, et al. During a rancorous stage in the discussion, Howard Dean tried to restore perspective with the observation that they should tone down the rhetoric and remember they're basically allies: "George Bush is the enemy."

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His remark won applause from the audience and nods among the candidates. Not one word of dissent. Someone could have said, "Wait a minute, Howard. George Bush is the opposition, not the enemy. Our enemies are those who are trying to destroy our country. Can't we agree that the president is not engaged in sabotage, even if we don't like his policies?" The statement might not have gone over well in that forum, but someone should have said it. Because Dean's comment was false and disturbing, an ill wind blowing off the fever swamps of the far left, where "9/11 was an inside job."

That wind has been blowing for a long time-well before the 2004 campaign, in fact. But the appointment of "9/11 Truther" Van Jones to a czarship within the administration made it more or less official. Even though Jones resigned upon exposure (and the resulting public outcry), another disturbing proposal is going forward: Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to reinvestigate CIA agents for alleged torture during interrogation of prisoners.

Those charges have already been investigated, and all except one dismissed. By reopening the case, the administration signals that it will not merely override or cancel the previous administration; it will punish the previous administration. Is anybody up for Dick Cheney as a war criminal?

Imagine one side, in the heat of battle, pausing to work out its philosophical angst-or worse, turning to fire on their own troops. The CIA is not a Republican enclave; it's the government. Trials for war crimes usually take place after the war, when the danger has passed. But the danger has not passed. In fact, the real enemy ("enemy" in the quaint, old-fashioned sense of someone who's trying to kill you) is gaining ground.

When Holder announced his decision, Joseph Lieberman issued a statement of protest. With respect to the senator, he should have protested Howard Dean's careless statement back in 2004.

It's always open season on political opponents, but photos of your rival in bed with a call girl will usually not compromise national security. This investigation, if allowed to go forward, surely will. We can speculate on the reasons, but we know the result: Our real enemies will benefit. Our national security will be further compromised. Our sons and daughters will be in greater danger. The fringe element of the party will have cemented itself in the center.

When a president and his administration regard their political opponents as the enemy, those opponents will regard the administration in the same way. "Can two walk together unless they be agreed?" At least agreed about their common danger? We'll hang together, Benjamin Franklin said, or we'll hang separately. But like a marriage in which each partner sees the other as bent on destruction, we're in deep trouble.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to jcheaney@worldmag.com.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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