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My wife and I just returned from an eye-opening, two-week trip to Ireland, a lush island where everyone we encountered seems to love Yankee Doodle Dandies. You can still count on being welcomed by friendly faces and heart-warming hospitality, probably because Americans provided a safe harbor and shiploads of food during the 19th-century famines and have been there for these long-oppressed, freedom-loving people ever since.

But the folks we yarned with aren’t keen on our government’s recent behavior – and it’s not about Bill Clinton’s Irish background as opposed to George Bush’s English genes. Our aggressive new “Pre-emptive First Strike” stance worries them as much as it does other “old” Europeans. The most frequent question we encountered – I kid you not – was “Do you think we’ll be invaded next?”

My response: “North Korea and Iran lead the administration’s termination list. Relax. Ireland’s safe as long as it continues to export Guinness beer.”

But in Ireland, Bush is clearly out and those other Texans, the Dixie Chicks – who are big-time box office overseas – are in.

Like the Dixie Chicks, the Irish people aren’t afraid to sound off. Forever mindful of their hard fight for liberty, they don’t take freedom of speech for granted. And their stand-up-and-be-counted electronic media regularly – and righteously – go for their politicians’ jugular veins with a vengeance seldom seen in the USA these days. I suspect the reason for the difference is Corporate America’s control over our airways; the big guys are now shamelessly riding the same corrupting pork train as most Washington-based power players.

But what a price the Dixie Chicks have paid here in the USA for sounding off. They took the same terrible hit as many others for daring to ask how real a threat Iraq’s much-hyped Weapons of Mass Destruction posed and if it was smart to place our sons and daughters at risk in a fight that didn’t truly involve our national security.

It seems that in America it’s unpatriotic to ask “Was this war necessary?” Today, a highly organized right-wing juggernaut is quick to attack anyone who protests Washington’s war plans, calling these truth-seekers un-American and traitorous.

Many of us have chosen to shut up and look the other way out of dread of being accused of not supporting our country and our troops. Anyone expressing the slightest dissent is warned: “It’s our way or the highway. If you don’t like where the country’s going, then move to Germany or France.”

Doubting Americans seem too cowed to sound off and question these self-proclaimed patriots – the majority of whom dodged combat service during past conflicts as diligently as most of us are avoiding Hong Kong and Toronto today.

In spite of their residence in a very hot place, demagogue Joe McCarthy and the rabid members of his Committee on Un-American Activities – which did such appalling damage to our country’s integrity in the 1950s – must be gloating over the Hawks Club following in their footsteps, wrapped as they were in the American flag.

Sadly, too many of us seem to have bought into the same sort of fear and base propaganda as the good people of Germany when Hitler was promoting his Sieg Heils in the mid-1930s: My country, right or wrong, my country.

Beginning with much of the media, we seem to have forgotten Mark Twain’s sage comment: “Loyalty to the country always, loyalty to the government when it deserves it.”

Bet your boots that more than 200,000 American troops now stuck in the Middle Eastern deserts – many living in primitive conditions that we don’t tolerate for farm animals, dodging bullets that cut into American flesh almost daily – surely would appreciate more Americans standing tall and asking the billion-dollar question: Was the Iraq War critical to our country’s national interest, and is the occupation worth the bloody price our grunts continue to pay?

We need to remember that dissent is what America is all about. Wise men long ago guaranteed our freedom to attack city hall by the magic documents that a bunch of dedicated people have fought McCarthy-type gangs time and again over the years to keep alive: the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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