Shhh. Do you hear that? It’s the sound of free political dissent. It’s grown quieter and quieter over the past year and a half, and these days I wouldn’t blame you if you’re having trouble hearing anything at all.

Perhaps it all started back in late September of 2001. The World Trade Center had just been destroyed by terrorists and the public sought solace in national unity and the words of the president. In this climate, talk show host Bill Maher dared to criticize U.S. foreign policy by declaring that the terrorists were no more cowardly than those who launched cruise missiles at their adversaries from thousands of miles away. In response, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer stated that Americans “need to watch what they say, what they do.” He went on to say that “this is not a time for remarks like that. There never is.”

Since then, Americans across the country seem to have taken Fleischer’s words to heart. And over the past month, as America has prepared for and commenced war with Iraq, speaking out against the government has become more taboo than ever.

Take the case of Stephen Downs, a private citizen who decided to protest the war by having a T-shirt made that read “Peace on Earth” and “Give Peace a Chance.” While wearing the shirt at a mall in upstate New York earlier this month, Downs was arrested for trespassing and for being disruptive. When pressed, mall managers were unable to substantiate either claim and the charges were dropped. The incident was later revealed to be one of a series of actions taken by the mall to ban anti-war messages from its premises.

Then there’s the Dixie Chicks, whose lead singer said she was “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas” at a London concert two weeks ago. Soon after, scores of country stations removed the group from their playlists, with some hosting bonfires of Dixie Chicks memorabilia. On top of this, the South Carolina House passed a resolution condemning the Chicks for their “unpatriotic and unnecessary comments,” and asked them to atone for their remarks by giving a free concert for the troops. The House also considered a measure that would have banned the group from entering the state altogether.

Finally, Sen. Tom Daschle made news last week by criticizing President Bush’s failure to assemble a strong international coalition in dealing with Iraq. Some senators have demanded that Daschle apologize for his remarks, while others have gone as far as to suggest that his words give comfort to the enemy. But the most ominous response came from House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who stated that “anybody can say anything he or she wants to — but there are consequences to what you say.”

Of course, these are just some examples of how attempts to mute the voices of dissent reflect a growing environment of political intolerance in this country. Listen a bit closer and the silence is almost deafening. Columnists in major newspapers have called for the boycott of music and films that feature performers openly opposed to the war. Talk radio hosts have advocated arresting leaders of the peace movement. And journalists critical of current government policies and tactics have been labeled terrorists by administration advisers.

How did it come to this? When did free speech, one of the cornerstones of our democracy, become an endangered species? Many have said that, in times of war, we must rally around our troops and our president. Anything less is un-American. But for those concerned that war will only bring increased suffering to both our friends and foes, speaking out is a means of finding the best solution to the current crisis. Without debate, we risk letting the opinions of a few dictate the actions of all. And what could be more un-American than that?

In the wake of the McCarthyism that targeted unpopular speech at the end of World War II, President Eisenhower declared, “May we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.” Today, with anti-war sentiment deemed unpatriotic and even treasonous, we are in danger of entering a new era of political repression. “You don’t support our troops” is becoming the new “you are a communist spy.” Both remarks are designed to stifle debate, and to let fear rather than reason rule the day.

War with Iraq has divided much of this country and most of the world. Some say we take a huge gamble with this war, while others argue we take a huge gamble without it. Either way, the war raises serious issues that must be dealt with in the most open and honest way possible. The minute we, as Americans, fear speaking our hearts and minds about any political topic is the minute we become no better than the countries whose governments we seek to change.

In the end, silence will be our worst enemy.

David Grimm is a fifth-year graduate student in the genetics department. His column appears regularly on alternate Thursdays.