Sunday, April 20
'Our voices are lost in the tide of intolerance sweeping America'
Free speech is under threat in the US, says actor and director Tim Robbins. In this keynote address to journalists last week, he tells of the reprisals faced by anyone, including his family, who dares to dissent

Sunday April 20, 2003
The Observer

For all the ugliness and tragedy of 9/11, there was a brief period when, in the midst of the tears and the shock, I held on to a glimmer of hope in the naive assumption that something good could come out of it.
I imagined our leaders seizing on this moment of unity in America, when no one wanted to talk about Democrat versus Republican, white versus black, or any of the ridiculous divisions that dominate our public discourse.

I imagined our leaders going on television telling the citizens that, although we all want to be at Ground Zero, we can't, but there is work that is needed to be done all over America. Our help is needed at community centres to tutor children, to teach them to read. Our work is needed at old age homes to visit the lonely and infirm; in gutted neighborhoods to rebuild housing and clean up parks, and convert abandoned lots to baseball fields. I imagined leadership that would take this incredible energy, this generosity of spirit, and create a new unity in America, born out of the chaos and tragedy of 9/11, that would send a message to all terrorists: if you attack us, we'll become stronger, cleaner, better educated, more unified. Like a phoenix out of the fire, we will be reborn.

And then came the speech: you are either with us or against us. And the bombing began. And the old paradigm was restored as our leader encouraged us to show our patriotism by shopping and volunteering to join groups that would turn in their neighbour for any suspicious behaviour. [...]

Susan and I have been listed as traitors, as supporters of Saddam, and various other epithets. Two weeks ago, the United Way cancelled Susan's appearance at a conference on women's leadership. Both of us last week were told that we and the First Amendment were not welcome at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. [...] In Washington [veteran journalist] Helen Thomas finds herself banished to the back of the [White House press briefing] room and uncalled on after asking Ari Fleischer whether our showing prisoners of war at Guant√°namo Bay on television violated the Geneva Convention.

A chill wind is blowing in this nation. A message is being sent through the White House and its allies in talk radio and Clear Channel and Cooperstown. If you oppose this administration, there can and will be ramifications. Every day the airwaves are filled with warnings, veiled and unveiled threats, invective and hatred directed at any voice of dissent. And the public, like so many relatives and friends that I saw last weekend, sit in mute opposition and fear. [...]

As we applaud the hard-edged realism of the opening battle scene of Saving Private Ryan , we cringe at the thought of seeing the same on the nightly news. We are told it would be pornographic. We want no part of reality in real life. We demand that war be painstakingly realised on the screen, but that war remain imagined and conceptualised in real life. [...] In this time when a citizenry applauds the liberation of a country as it lives in fear of its own freedom, when people all over the country fear reprisal if they use their right to free speech, it is time to get angry.

And it doesn't take much to shift the tide. My 11-year-old nephew, mentioned earlier, a shy kid who never talks in class, stood up to his history teacher who was questioning Susan's patriotism. 'That's my aunt you're talking about. Stop it.' The stunned teacher backtracked and began stammering compliments. A bully can be stopped, and so can a mob. It takes one person with the courage and a resolute voice. ...

In the name of my nephew, and all the other victims of this environment of fear, let us try to find common ground as a nation. Let us celebrate this glorious experiment that has lasted 227 years. To do so we must honour and fight for the things that unite us - like freedom, the First Amendment and, yes, baseball.

· This is an edited version of a speech given by Tim Robbins to the National Press Club in Washington last week
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