Quick! Somebody check. Did they nail the coffin lid shut? I could swear that Sen. Joseph McCarthy has returned from the dead. With one big difference.

Today the disgraced commie hater-hunter is no longer asking: Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party? His new query is: Are you now, or have you ever been, a critic of President Bush’s war in Iraq? If so, you are immediately branded as disloyal to your country.

It all started at the White House, during the build-up to the war, when Press Secretary Ari Fleischer warned that people should “watch what they say.” For many Americans, that was a license to suspect anybody who didn’t buy Bush’s arguments for going to war and brand them as traitors.

Ask the Dixie Chicks, America’s best and most popular country music entertainers. Once lead singer Natalie Maines told an audience they were not on board with, and were even embarrassed by, fellow Texan George Bush, they might as well have sold their guitars on eBay. Small-minded fans started destroying their CDs and boycotting their concerts. This week, five weeks after the end of the war, they were still booed at the country music awards.

Ask Sean Penn, denied a leading role in a new movie because he spoke out against an American invasion in pre-war Baghdad. Ask Martin Sheen, warned by his bosses at NBC to cool his anti-war jets … or else. Or ask Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. An anniversary showing of their classic movie “Bull Durham” was cancelled by baseball’s Hall of Fame for fear they might say something political.

Latest victim of the back-from-the-dead McCarthy treatment: New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges.

Hedges was invited to give the commencement address at tiny Rockford College in Illinois. His anti-war views were no secret to students and faculty. He even wrote a book critical of war in general: “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.” Nevertheless, once Hedges started speaking, he was treated like Osama bin Laden.

Some students started to boo. Others stood and turned their backs to him. One group of parents shouted: “Go home!” And the president of the university, who invited him, pulled the plug on his mike. Twice! All because, among other things, he said that the United States is an occupying force in Iraq, rather than a liberating force – which, of course, is just what millions of Iraqis believe.

And Hedges is not alone. The same barnyard behavior greeted talk-show host Phil Donahue during his commencement address to graduates of North Carolina State University.

Now, having been privileged to give one commencement address – to the class of 2002 at Ohio’s great Wittenberg University – I would be the first to argue that graduation ceremonies are not the time or place for a political harangue. Students and their families expect, and deserve, something uplifting, positive and unifying. But surely we should be willing to listen to someone with whom we disagree without booing him off the stage or throwing tomatoes.

What this boorish behavior really reflects is a growing lack of civility in this country, and an appalling lack of tolerance. Have we forgotten what this country is all about? Our forefathers, and mothers, came to the New World to flee intolerance. Here in America, they created a new social order based on certain God-given freedoms, including freedom of speech, where citizens are able to express their views freely without having to pay any price.

Today there are many people, especially conservatives, who want to roll back the clock. They are hypocrites. They supported overturning Saddam Hussein, yet now they want to turn the United States into just what Iraq used to be: a country where nobody dares disagree with the president. And if you do, you get punished for it.

Whether we are liberal or conservative, it is important to reject this rebirth of intolerance as un-American. Now’s the time to cling to and protect our basic freedoms, not destroy them.

By the way, the same respect should be shown for those on the right. At Philadelphia’s St. Joseph’s University, Sen. Rick Santorum was also treated rudely because of statements he made last month attacking gays and lesbians – statements I strongly disagree with.

Still, Santorum didn’t deserve the catcalls, any more than Chris Hedges or Phil Donahue did. Tolerance is a two-way street.

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