TREASURE OUR FREEDOM TO ASK QUESTIONS

He might be dead. That doesn’t stop people from laughing at him.

His name is Mohammed Saeed al- Sahhaf, also known as the Iraqi information minister. He is the least likely pop star to emerge from the war. He is Saddam Hussein’s mouthpiece who, throughout the conflict, kept insisting there was nothing going on. No Americans. No tanks. No soldiers. All is well. Iraq will destroy the infidels. Have a nice day.

Some of Sahhaff’s Greatest Hits:

“There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!”

“My feelings — as usual — we will slaughter them all.”

“I blame Al-Jazeera — they are marketing for the Americans!”

“God will roast their stomachs in hell.”

“I can say, and I am responsible for what I am saying, that (the Americans) have started to commit suicide under the walls of Baghdad.”

These official proclamations were so outlandish, some guy in the United States started a Web site posting them for laughs. He called it “We Love The Iraqi Information Minister.com.”

As of last week, according to its founder, it was getting eight million hits a day.

Criticizing the wrong people

I’m glad we laugh at those statements. I’m glad we see how ridiculous someone looks when he spouts propaganda. I’m glad we shake our heads at any society that accepts such one-sided lying as its official news.

What I don’t understand is why some of the same people laughing at al-Sahhaff criticize the American press for asking difficult questions.

It has become popular during this war to roast any journalist who wondered if we had enough troops, who asked if we were prepared for suicide attacks, who questioned the connections of certain rich corporations hungering for the rebuilding money, or who postulated that the stated causes for this war — weapons of mass destruction — were, to this date, still unfound.

Such people were branded “un-American.” The people doing the branding were often themselves under the journalistic umbrella — broadcasters, columnists, commentators. But they were doing the most un-journalistic of things.

They were attacking questions.

Mocking questions is unpatriotic

Don’t we see? The very health of being skeptical of people in power is what avoids the sickness of the Iraqi information minister — mouthing the party line. Just because someone asks a question doesn’t mean he wants the answer to be damning. Do we have enough troops? Yes, we do, here’s why. Are we ready for suicide attacks? As much as we can be, here’s why. What about those corporations? Well, here are their connections. What about weapons of mass destruction? We’re still looking, here’s how.

All questions require are answers. A society that treasures freedom doesn’t condemn them. Dictators do.

In the midst of this war, I watched Bill O’Reilly of Fox News deride a guest from a fairness-and-accuracy-in-reporting group because he dared to question whether the “discovery” of a chemical weapons site — something put out by the Pentagon — was being too quickly reported as fact.

“Why do you care?” O’Reilly asked him.

The guy was so flummoxed by the question, he paused, and O’Reilly said,
“You’re rooting against us.” He pointed at his guest’s confused expression and said, “We just saw your face. You’re rooting against us.”

He then cut the guy off and went to a commercial.

Such behavior was not only rude and irresponsible, it undermined the very thing we cherish most in this country: the freedom to ask, even of our most powerful institutions. As it turned out, the guest was right. The irony is, O’Reilly and his network paint themselves as patriots.

Silencing people is not patriotic. Spouting the party line is not patriotic. We laugh at the Iraqi information minister, but every time we crush a question, we take a small step in his direction.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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