Freedom To Disagree

Two years after 9/11, it's good to see America exercise this basic right

I had a miserable week. I think everybody who lives in New York did. It wasn't just 9/11. It was that every other day of the week was measured in relationship to that day. And in New York, every thing seems somehow connected to 9/11, from the restaurants that are now out of business to the friends who are now out of work.

Two years ago, the world cried for the United States and for New York. Two years and a war against Iraq later, I read in a New York Times story published on the anniversary that many around the world now believe America is "an imperial power that has defied world opinion through unjustified and unilateral use of military force." Many in the United States think the same thing.

Attitudes have shifted, and not just in a straight line. Right after Sept. 11, 2001, even the men and women who weren't the sort to wear lapel flags were wearing NYPD and FDNY caps. The liberal Village Voice ran a front page of the burning towers, emblazoned with the headline "Those Bastards."

Two years later, the monolithic support for the White House and its policies is fading. In fact, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said last week that Democratic criticism of President Bush's Iraq policy emboldens the terrorists. The implicit message: Shut up.

He misses the point. Criticism of the president is what makes this country great. It's why we're not Iraq.

I couldn't help thinking of Rumsfeld's don't-rock-the-boat admonition last week when I popped in a tape of pro-freedom public-service commercials that have been running since last year.

The Ad Council, the admirable non-profit organization that gets advertising agencies to produce do-good commercials for worthy causes like fighting forest fires, began putting together its own Campaign For Freedom days after 9/11. With help from the Knight, Hearst, and Mott foundations and Coca-Cola and Home Depot, the organization put together a half-million dollars to produce a multimedia campaign that reminded us of a plainly inarguable point: Freedom is something to cherish.

Peggy Conlon, the Ad Council's president and CEO (and former publisher of BROADCASTING & CABLE ) is justifiably proud of the spots—which got $33 million worth of donated television and radio time or newspaper and magazine space in 2002.

But viewed today, last year's spots appear to have predicted a paranoia that seems to have developed with the Patriot Act. In one spot, a teenage guy tells a librarian he can't seem to locate books he needs. "Those books are no longer available," she tells him, and suddenly two FBI-ish guys hustle the kid away. "We just want to ask you a couple questions," you hear one of G-men say. In another commercial, cops find stacks of daily newspapers that a teenager has hidden in his car. In another, a minister holds a religious service in his basement and then warns the congregation on the way out, "Please be careful going home."

Those commercials end with the tag: "What if America Wasn't America?" and Conlon said they were intended, more or less as "a civics lesson for kids," to teach them the impact of the Bill of Rights. In fact, schoolteachers asked to use the spots in their classrooms.

This year's spots, produced at the same time as the first batch but held back until 2003, concentrate on immigrants, who poignantly explain what we may have forgotten: Compared with many other parts of the world, American freedoms are unique. The series includes a Cambodian refugee explaining how his parents were slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge, a Russian woman who fled to the United States 52 years ago, and an escaped Armenian artist who had been imprisoned there because of his political views.

All the spots end with the same command: "Freedom. Appreciate it. Cherish it. Protect it." To Conlon, these spots are about "people who know first-hand how America is different from anywhere else in the world."

These PSAs work on a different level now than when they were first produced, I'd say. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, America may have needed reaffirmation of its basic principles. Two years later, you're seeing those principles put to the test. America dissents. There is criticism. Division. Arguments. They're all-American traits. And I say, God bless our disagreeable selves.

Bednarski may be reached at