Treason isn’t a word to be used lightly

President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 30, 2018.
President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 30, 2018. AP

Accusing their opponents of being ‘unpatriotic’ or, worse, ‘treasonous’ is a tactic long used by governments to suppress dissent.

In the last century or so, our country has seen its own share of government intimidation and official accusations of disloyalty.

American isolationists and pacifists who protested U.S. involvement in WWI were hounded and arrested as enemy sympathizers under the Sedition Act. This act outlawed “disloyal speech” against the government, the flag, or the military. More than a thousand people were rounded up and incarcerated at that time.

In the 1950s, politically liberal-leaning artists, teachers, scientists, and business owners were compelled to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the Senate Internal Security Sub-Committee during a time later called the “Red Scare,” and accused of being subversives and Communist sympathizers. As a result, many of them were unjustly ‘black-listed,’ losing their good names and their livelihoods, as well.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Americans who questioned our involvement in the Vietnam War were deemed disloyal and accused of aiding and abetting the Viet Cong and the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. My father-in-law, a devout elder at Fairlington Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Virginia, was called a traitor and driven out of his church by the pastor and fellow elders because he considered the continuance of the war to be immoral.

Today, those who raise questions about the wisdom of spending billions of our tax dollars on modernizing our nuclear arsenal are accused of being weak and playing into the hands of our global nuclear adversaries. Those who question the morality of our government’s program of drone assassinations are seen as undermining national security and being naïve about the ‘terrorist threat.’

History shows that using the tag ‘unpatriotic’ as a cudgel is not new in America, and has been employed by elected officials of all parties throughout our history since the founding of our nation. But, today, this political smear tactic has reached a new low.

Athletes, exercising their Constitutional right to protest racial inequality and taking a knee during the singing of the national anthem before sporting events – the singing itself a curious ritual not found at the start of public games in other Western democracies – are accused of dishonoring the country, desecrating the Stars and Stripes and showing contempt for our men and women in uniform and their families.

So, perhaps it wasn’t out of character when, last week, President Trump hinted that the members of Congress who did not stand and applaud his remarks at the State of the Union Address might, just might, be guilty of treason. Scrambling White House spokespersons later urged the public not to take the president’s remark seriously.

But this is deadly serious stuff, and we wave off such accusations at great peril.

Were the president and his advisers to profess their own patriotism to garner votes, that would be one matter. Instead, they are at every opportunity, coyly wrapping themselves in the flag. Theirs is an attempt to redefine what it means to be a loyal citizen of the United States, and to employ that narrow definition as a way to energize and normalize a dysfunctional and retrograde “America love-it-or-leave-it” ultra-nationalism.

That Joe McCarthy, a conspiracy-obsessed, unscrupulous U.S. Senator, did it 60 years ago was shameful enough; that the country’s Chief Executive is doing it again today is beyond reprehensible and libelous.

We, the citizenry, wait in vain for an apology from the president, but he doesn’t do apologies. And, in this case, he has neither the capacity to understand, nor the ability to admit, just how treacherous was the allegation of treason that he made.

We must continue to hold dear the liberties that we have, and to defend the right of all, whether athletes or members of Congress, to protest. Should we fail to do so, our very democracy is put at grave risk.

Joe Moran is retired and lives in Durham.