Thursday, July 07, 2005

Always At War: Ira Leonard on Violence in America

"Increasingly, Americans are a people without history, with only memory, which means a people poorly prepared for what is inevitable about life – tragedy, sadness, moral ambiguity – and therefore a people reluctant to engage difficult ethical issues." – Elliot Gorn, “Professing History: Distinguishing Between Memory and Past,” Chronicle of Higher Education (April 28, 2000).
This article was originally published in the Hartford Advocate.

In August 2002, President George Bush began to drum up a war fever in America with a view to toppling Iraqi Dictator Saddam Hussein, alleged to be the possessor of weapons of mass destruction. Bush did so without providing the evidence, the costs, the "why now" explanation, or long-term implications of such a war.

And by October 2002, The United States Congress not only granted the president a virtual declaration of war for an historically unprecedented "pre-emptive war," but did so without raising any questions about the whys, the evidence, the costs, or long term implications for the nation – and for the world – of such an unprovoked invasion.

Only a democratic society accustomed to war – and predisposed to the use of war and violence – would accept war so quickly, without asking any questions or demanding any answers from its leaders about the war.

And only the opposition of the French, Germans, Russians, and Chinese finally forced some Americans to raise questions about what was actually being planned. This, coupled with the anti-war demonstrations on February 15th, 2003 by millions of people in 350 cities around the globe, delayed President Bush from actually launching this war against Iraq by mid-February 2003.

The reality, not taught in American schools and textbooks, is that war – whether on a large or small scale – and domestic violence have been ever-present features of American life and culture from this country's earliest days almost 400 years ago. Violence, in varying forms, according to the leading historian of the subject, Richard Maxwell Brown, "has accompanied virtually every stage and aspect of our national experience," and is "part of our unacknowledged (underground) value structure." Indeed, "repeated episodes of violence going far back into our colonial past, have imprinted upon our citizens a propensity to violence."

Thus, America demonstrated a national predilection for war and domestic violence long before the 9/11 attacks, but its leaders and intellectuals through most of the last century cultivated the national self-image, a myth, of America as a moral, "peace-loving" nation which the American population seems unquestioningly to have embraced.

Despite the national, peace-loving self-image, American patriotism has usually been expressed in military and even militaristic terms. No less than seven presidents owed their election chiefly to their military careers (George Washington, 1789, Andrew Jackson,1828, William Henry Harrison, 1840, Zachary Taylor,1848, Ulysses S. Grant,1868, Theodore Roosevelt,1898, and Dwight David Eisenhower, 1952) while others, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, for example, capitalized upon their military records to become presidents, and countless others at both federal and state levels made a great deal of their war or military records.

Starting with President Woodrow Wilson early in the 20th century, national leaders began to use moralistic rhetoric when they took the nation to war: Assuring Americans that the nation's singular mission in the world required the nation to go to war, but that when it went to war, America only did what was morally right.

Secretary of State John Hay, in 1898, lauded the Spanish-American War as a "splendid little war." Commentators have touted World War II as the good war and those who fought in it, "The Best American Generation," and President George Bush, as he was about to launch a War against Iraq on January 29, 1991, asserted: "We are Americans; we have a unique responsibility to do the hard work of freedom. And when we do, freedom works."

This is not to suggest that all American wars have been fought for base motives, cloaked by self-serving moralistic rhetoric, but rather that Americans have little genuine understanding of the major role played by war throughout the American experience.

Historians, however, are well aware that war taught Americans how to fight, helped unite the diverse American population, and helped stimulate the national economy, among other significant things. But this is not the message that they have presented to the American people, concerned perhaps they might undermine Americans' self-image.

Just how frequent war has been, and how central wars have been to the evolution of the United States, only becomes clear when you start to make a list. American wars begin with the first Indian attack in 1622 in Jamestown, Virginia, followed by the Pequot War in New England in 1635-36, and King Philips' War, in 1675-76, which resulted in the destruction of almost half the towns in Massachusetts. Other wars and skirmishes with Native American Indians would follow until 1900.

There were four major imperial wars between 1689 and 1763 involving England and its North American colonies and the French (and their Native American Indian allies), Spanish, and Dutch empires. During roughly the same years, 1641 to 1759, there were 18 settler outbreaks, five rising to the level of major insurrections (such as Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia, 1676-1677, Leisler's Rebellion in New York, 1689-1692, and Coode's Rebellion in Maryland, 1689-1692), and 40 riots.

Americans gained their independence from England and boundaries out to the Mississippi River, as a consequence of the Revolutionary War.

The second war against England, 1812-1815, reinforced our independence, while 40 wars with the Native American Indians between the 1622 and 1900 resulted in millions upon millions of acres of land being added to the national domain.

In 1848, the entire southwest, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Utah and Wyoming, was obtained through war with Mexico.

The Civil War between 1861 and 1865 was simply the bloodiest war in American history.

America's overseas empire began with the Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection (1898-1902) by which the U.S. gained control of the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Then, there were World Wars I and II, the Korean Police Action (1949 - 1952), and the longest – and most expensive war – in American history, the Vietnam War between 1959 and 1975.

Meanwhile, between 1789 and 1945, there were at least 200 presidentially directed military actions all over the globe. Among other places, these kinds of military actions involved the shelling of Indochina in 1849 and the U.S. military occupation of virtually every Caribbean and Central-American country between 1904 and 1934. Indeed, in his effort to justify U.S. military intervention in Cuba against Fidel Castro, on September 17, 1962, Secretary of State Dean Rusk presented a list to a U.S. Senate Hearing of all of these 200 plus "precedents" (now called "low intensity conflicts") from 1789 to 1960.

During the Cold War between 1945 and 1989, the U.S. waged war, directly or through surrogates, openly and covertly, from military bases all over the world. After the Cold War ended in 1989, other important military actions have been undertaken, such as the Gulf War (January and February 1991 in Iraq), in the former Yugoslavia (in 1999), and the 2001 war against the Taliban government and international terrorists in Afghanistan and the Philippines in 2003. To this roster, we may soon add a 2003 war against Iraq, to be followed, perhaps, by one with North Korea, which has lately brandished its nuclear weapons and missiles.

American historians have avidly studied war, especially the Civil War and World War II, but their focus has almost always been on war causation, battles, generalship, battlefield tactics and strategy, and so on.

Overlooked, for the most part, are the general and specific effects of war upon American cultural life; the possible connections between war and civilian violence is still largely unexplored territory. Has war directly or indirectly encouraged an American predisposition toward aggressiveness and the use of violence or was it the reverse?

This question has never been satisfactorily investigated by American historians or other scholars. Yet, the overwhelming majority of historians have always known that America was – and is – a violent country. But they have said very little about it, depriving the population of a realistic understanding about this important aspect of their national culture.

This omission is most clearly observable in U.S. history textbooks used in high schools, colleges and universities, on the one hand, and popular histories derived from these texts, on the other, which have never devoted serious attention to the topic of the violence in America, let alone sought to explain it. Consequently, there seems little genuine understanding about the centrality of violence in American life and history.

The overwhelming majority of American historians have not studied, written about, or discussed America's "high violence" environment, not because of a lack of hard information or knowledge about the frequent and widespread use of violence, but because of an unwillingness to confront the reality that violence and American culture are inextricably intertwined.

Many prominent historians recognized this years ago. In the introduction to his 1970 collection of primary documents, titled, American Violence: A Documentary History, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter wrote: "what is impressive to one who begins to learn about American violence is its extraordinary frequency, its sheer commonplaceness in our history, its persistence into very recent and contemporary times, and its rather abrupt contrast with our pretensions to singular national virtue." Indeed, Hofstadter wrote the "legacy" of the violent 1960s would be a commitment by historians systematically to study American violence.

But most American historians have studiously avoided the topic or somehow clouded the issue. In 1993, in his magisterial study, The History of Crime and Punishment in America, for example, Stanford University Historian Lawrence Friedman devoted a chapter to the many forms of American violence. Then, in a very revealing chapter conclusion, Friedman wrote: "American violence must come from somewhere deep in the American personality ... [it] cannot be accidental; nor can it be genetic. The specific facts of American life made it what it is ... crime has been perhaps a part of the price of liberty ... [but] American violence is still a historical puzzle." Precisely what is it that historians are unwilling to discuss? Basically, there are three forms of American violence: mob violence, interpersonal violence, and war.

What is the extent of mob violence?

Indiana University Historian Paul Gilje, in his 1997 book titled, Rioting in America, stated there were at least 4,000 riots between the early 1600s and 1992. Gilje asserted that "without an understanding of the impact of rioting we cannot fully comprehend the history of the American people."

This is a position that director Martin Scorsese just made his own in the film, Gangs of New York, which focused on the July 1863 Draft Act Riots in New York City as the historical pivot around which America's urban experience revolved. However, occasional gory movie depictions of violent riots, or Civil War battles, as in Gods and Generals, provide little real understanding of a nation's history.

M.I.T. Historian Robert Fogelson, in his 1971 book, Violence as Protest: a Study of Riots and Ghettos, concluded that "for three and a half centuries Americans have resorted to violence in order to reach goals otherwise unattainable ... indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the native white majority has rioted in some way and at some time against every minority group in America and yet Americans regard rioting not only as illegitimate but, even more significant, as aberrant."

Part of the fascination with group violence is the spectacle of mob rampages. But for historians there is more; group violence is viewed as a "response" to changing economic, political, social, cultural, demographic or religious conditions. Thus, however violent the episodes were, historians could see larger "reasons" for these group behaviors; somehow, these actions reflected a "cause."

(This might be likened to the way many American historians still view the southern secession movementand Civil War. Seeking to maintain their institution of human slavery, southerners started the bloodiest war in American history which almost destroyed the union. But because they claimed to be fighting for their "freedom," historians have treated their action as a legitimate cause, whereas in other nations such action is ordinarily viewed as treason).

Now, to the nitty-gritty, how many victims did riots and collective violence claim over the 400-year American historical experience?

This can never accurately be known, considering it includes official and unofficial violence against Native American Indians, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asians and untold riots, vigilante actions and lynchings, among other things.

But a conservative guesstimate of, perhaps, about 2,000,000 deaths and serious injuries between 1607 and 2001 (or about 5,063 each and every year for 395 years) seems a reasonable – and quite conservative – number for analytical purposes, until more precise statistics are available.

At least 753,000 Native American Indians were the intended victims of warfare and genocide between 1622 and 1900 in what is now the United States of America, according to one scholar. The number for African-Americans might equal or exceed the estimate for the Indians, 750,000.

The total number of deaths for all other forms of collective violence seems well under 20,000. The greatest American riot, the New York City Draft Act riots of July 1863, resulted in between 105 and 150 deaths, while the major 1960s riots (Watts, Los Angeles, Newark, N.J., and Detroit, Mich., accounted for a total of 103 deaths, and the 1992 Los Angeles riot claimed 60 lives. The estimate of deaths from the 326 vigilante episodes is between 750 and 1,000. Approximately 5,000 individuals were known to have been lynched between 1882 and 1968, and about 2,000 more killed in labor-management violence.

Horrendous as this sounds – and it is horrendous – this 2,000,000 figure pales when compared to the major form of American violence which historians have routinely ignored until very recently.

Historians of violence have largely ignored individual interpersonal violence, which, in sharp contrast to group violence, is very frequent, sometimes very personal – and far deadlier than group violence.

In 1997, two distinguished legal scholars, Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins, compared crime rates in the G-7 countries (Canada, England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States) between the 1960s and 1990s in their book, Crime Is Not The Problem: Lethal Violence In America Is. Bluntly, they stated their conclusion: "what is striking about the quantity of lethal violence in the United States is that it is a third-world phenomenon occurring in a first-world nation."

Instances of personal violence include but are not limited to barroom brawls, quarrels between acquaintances, business associates, lovers or sexual rivals, family members, or during the commission of a robbery, mugging, or other crime.

How does the carnage in this category contrast with the 2,000,000 victims of group violence between 1607 and 2001?

During the 20th century alone, well over 10 million Americans were victims of violent crimes -- and 10 percent of them – or 1,089,616 – were murdered between 1900 and 1997. The "total" number of "officially reported" homicides, aggravated assaults, robberies and rapes between 1937 and 1970 was 9,816,646, but these were undercounts! Every year during the 20th century at least 10 percent of the crimes committed have been violent crimes – homicides, aggravated assaults, forcible rapes and robberies. Between 1900 and 1997, there were 1,089,616 homicides. How were they murdered? 375,350 by firearms and 221,634 by all other means, including beating, strangling, stabbing and cutting, drowning, poisoning, burning and axing.

Between 1900 and 1971, 596,984 Americans were murdered. Between 1971 and 1997, there were another 592,616 killed in similar ways.

More Americans were killed by other Americans during the 20th century than died in the Spanish-American war (11,000 "deaths in service"), World War I (116,000 "deaths in service"), World War II (406,000 "deaths in service"), the Korean police action (55,000 "deaths in service"), and the Vietnam War (109,000 "deaths in service") combined. ("Deaths in Service" statistics are greater than combat deaths and were used here to make the contrast between war and civilian interpersonal violence rates even clearer.)

So, what accounts for the American ability to overlook collective violence, interpersonal violence, and war?

The explanation lies, first, with historians' abdication of responsibility systematically to deal with the issue of violence in America and, second, with the American population's refusal directly to confront any very ugly reality – which came first I do not know. This is what historians refer to as " mutual causation."

There are, of course, several factors that have enabled Americans to overlook their violent past. Many of these were actually defined by Richard Hofstadter in his 1970 introduction to American Violence: A Documentary History.

First, Americans have been told by historians that they are a "latter-day chosen people" with a providential exemption from the woes that plagued all other human societies. Historians of the 1950s had not denied that America's past was replete with violence; they just preferred during the Cold War to emphasize a more positive vision of America. Historians refer to this as the "myth of innocence" or the "myth of the new world Eden."

In an open, free, democratic society, graced with an abundance of natural resources, and without the residue of repressive European institutions, virtually any white person who worked hard had the opportunity to achieve the "American Dream" of material success and respectability.

Violence, especially political violence when it erupted, was dismissed out of hand as somehow "un-American," an unfortunate by-product of temporary racial, ethnic, religious and industrial conflicts. Second, American violence had not been a major issue for federal, state or local officials because it was rarely directed against them; it was rarely revolutionary violence.

Rather, American violence has almost always been citizen-against-citizen, white against black, white against Indian, Protestant against Catholic or Mormon, Catholic against Protestant, white against Asian or Hispanic.

The lack of a violent revolutionary tradition in America is the principal reason why Americans have never been disarmed, while in every European nation the reverse is true.

So, for the most part, Americans, laymen and historians alike, have been able to practice what some historians have termed "selective" recollection or "historical amnesia" about the violence in their past and present.

Since the 1960s, historians' works, cumulatively, have demonstrated a causal connection between American culture and the American predisposition to use violence. We might now be experiencing yet another by-product of this national penchant for violence – a willingness to engage in a major war without asking very many hard questions. It's the American Way.

Historians of violence seem to agree that no single factor shaped Americans’ national penchant for violence more than the obsession with race. The “institutionalization” of racial violence began with the slavery system in 1619 and after the first Indian war in 1622. Violence, by individual masters, groups, and the colonial and state governments, was essential to maintain racial slavery between 1619 – 1865, especially in the southern part of the country, and violence was essential to maintain the state-enforced racial caste system called “Jim Crow” Segregation between 1865 and 1965. Slavery, life servitude passed on to one’s children, was maintained on a daily basis by the constant use of brute force and violence, which included family separations, whippings, beatings, rapes, mutilation and even amputations to prevent or punish runaways. For some southern whites the color line was a license for barbarity, overriding the restraints of common humanity and Christianity. The great fear underlying southern life during the 300 years of slavery was that vast numbers of slaves might rise to exact murderous revenge; after slavery ended, in 1865, the fear was replaced by a determination not to relinguish white racial control over five million African Americans.

Between August 2002 and October 2002 President Bush successfully drummed up a war fever in America designed to topple Iraqi Dictator Saddam Hussein, alleged to be the possessor of weapons of mass destruction that he planned to use on America.

Bush did so without providing the evidence, the costs, the "why now" explanation, or long-term implications of such a war, yet still received the United States Congress' virtual declaration of war for a historically unprecedented pre-emptive strike. And even now, the Congress and just about all of the nation's media outlets have still refused to demand answers to the hard questions about what has been taking place in Iraq. Only a society accustomed to war – and predisposed to the use of war and violence – would accept war so quickly.

When all of President Bush's explanations for the American invasion of Iraq crashed, he quickly shifted to the time-tested American "just-war" rationale for war – America had to liberate an oppressed people and help them create liberty and democracy. This has been an American claim – and cultural ideal – since the War of 1812.

The development and use by Americans of the "just-war ideology," intriguingly, is one of the major themes in a significant new reinterpretation of the 400-year American historical experience. In Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America , 1500-2000 (Viking Press, 2005), by two prize-winning historians, Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, the authors say: "We construct a history of North America that emphasizes wars and their effects and stresses the 'centrality' of imperial ambition to the development of the United States."

Americans should "see the imperialist adventures of 1812 [war with England], 1846 [war with Mexico], and 1898 [war with Spain], and the wars of liberation that began in 1775 [the Revolution], 1861 [the Civil War], and 1941 [World War II] as related." They continue: "our purpose" is to emphasize "the importance of the wars Americans have fought less to preserve liberty than to extend the power of the United States in the name of liberty."

Pointing up the book's contemporary relevance, they write, "To this day the tendency persists ... to justify war as an altruistic determination to rid the world of tyrannies that would crush the human spirit."

War and imperial expansion, they argue in this engrossing and highly readable 420-page volume, have been the "central engine" of American economic, social and cultural development, but Americans still tenaciously retain the self-image of being a peace-loving people, who only respond to attacks upon them: indeed, "Americans ... constructed their conquest of North America as a collective sacrifice in the service of human liberty."

As a peace-loving people, "it is an article of faith that their wars have been forced upon them by those who would destroy their freedom," and thus, "Americans tend to believe that by winning wars, they made the world a better, safer, freer place."

This book is the first work by professional historians in more than a generation to organize America's historical experience around war, republicanism and imperialism. During the 1960s and early 1970s, a small group of historians led by William Appleman Williams and Walter LaFeber (who Anderson and Cayton praise) raised precisely this issue in their books, largely in response to claims by presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford that the Vietnam War was to free the Vietnamese people from oppression and give them freedom and democracy. But these '60s works were rejected by most college- and university-affiliated professional historians, who were concerned, while American soldiers were dying, about being tainted as "unpatriotic" during a major war.

Sadly, this avoidance of America's darker side – or more accurately, America's historical similarity to all other major nations – still continues and this book exhibits some of those tendencies.

Organizing the book around the lives and careers of eight men, five of whom were great American military figures, Samuel de Champlain, William Penn, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, Ulysses Grant, Douglas MacArthur, and Colin Powell, Anderson and Cayton show how war played a major role in shaping North America from the 1500s through the present. The only weakness in their otherwise superb description of the connection between American republicanism, war, and imperialism is the authors' studious avoidance of the causative factors in American society and culture over these hundreds of years. Without a serious examination of the underlying causes or origins within American culture and society, the book seems to be promoting a sophisticated version of "one-thing-led-to another" and the United States suddenly had the most powerful military and a worldwide empire.

What Anderson and Cayton have done is reminiscent of 20th century historians' unwillingness to examine and explain the persistence of astonishingly high levels of interpersonal violence and crime throughout the American historical experience. As a result of that oversight, there is little understanding of the connection between the predisposition to domestic violence and the predisposition to war and the role of war and violence in the shaping of American culture and society – what the leading historian of violence in America, Richard Maxwell Brown, called America's "strain of violence." Anderson and Cayton have advanced our understanding of the connection between war, republicanism, and imperialism, but have not explained the why.

Well over 10 million Americans were victims of violent crimes during the last 100 years alone – 1,089,600 were homicide victims and the rest were raped, robbed or physically assaulted. Anderson and Cayton depict Americans as almost instinctively aggressive but do not explain if this American culture of violence is simply a convenient tool used at various times by America's leaders for political purposes against "enemies" of American freedom, or whether the leaders are in the grip of this cultural trait.

It is “a profoundly ironic accident of the revolutionary origins of the United States," they state, "that the power-abhorring ideology of resistance, republicanism, formed the basis of political culture in what soon proved one of the most dynamically expansionist territorial empires in history” ( p. 423).

Fleetingly, in their introductory chapter, the authors simultaneously criticize American historians for avoiding or deflecting the central issues dealt with in their book – and of course the American experience – and the American people who refuse to allow themselves to consider what their nation has been doing for hundreds of years. “American historians,” they state on page xi, “have generally approached the imperial dimension of the nation’s history obliquely, treating occurrences of jingoism, like the war fevers of 1812 [war with England], 1846 [war with Mexico], and 1898 [war with Spain] as unfortunate exceptions to the antimilitarist rule of republicanism.” Then, on page xiii, they say, a “set of popular notions about the shape of American history, which taken together comprise a grand narrative so deeply embedded in American culture that they persist despite the long-running efforts of professional historians to correct or revise them.”

How can an “oblique treatment” of American wars suddenly be transformed a few pages later into “long-running efforts of professional historians to correct and revise” popular notions is beyond me. Anderson and Clayton reject the claim of "American Exceptionalism,” which Americans have been taught, yet they seem unable to suggest that America is little different in its actions over time than most other nations, say those of “Old Europe.”

Meanwhile, President Bush, convinced of the success of his Iraqi adventure, in his second inaugural address, called upon America to rebuild the world. "The policy of the United States," he said, is "to seek [out] and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

But he did not say whether his plans to accomplish this new national mission will require more military invasions of foreign governments.

Stay tuned.

Parts I and II of this article appeared in the June 30 issue of The Black Commentator.

Ira M. Leonard, New York University Ph.D 1965, has been a professor of history at Southern Connecticut State University for over 35 years. He can be reached at

Ira M. Leonard, New York University Ph.D 1965, has been a professor of history at Southern Connecticut State University for over 35 years. He can be reached at

Shame of a Nation: Judith Miller Marched Off to Jail

July 7, 2005
Judith Miller Goes to Jail
This is a proud but awful moment for The New York Times and its employees. One of our reporters, Judith Miller, has decided to accept a jail sentence rather than testify before a grand jury about one of her confidential sources. Ms. Miller has taken a path that will be lonely and painful for her and her family and friends. We wish she did not have to choose it, but we are certain she did the right thing.

She is surrendering her liberty in defense of a greater liberty, granted to a free press by the founding fathers so journalists can work on behalf of the public without fear of regulation or retaliation from any branch of government.

The Press and the Law

Some people - including, sadly, some of our colleagues in the news media - have mistakenly assumed that a reporter and a news organization place themselves above the law by rejecting a court order to testify. Nothing could be further from the truth. When another Times reporter, M. A. Farber, went to jail in 1978 rather than release his confidential notes, he declared, "I have no such right and I seek none."

By accepting her sentence, Ms. Miller bowed to the authority of the court. But she acted in the great tradition of civil disobedience that began with this nation's founding, which holds that the common good is best served in some instances by private citizens who are willing to defy a legal, but unjust or unwise, order.

This tradition stretches from the Boston Tea Party to the Underground Railroad, to the Americans who defied the McCarthy inquisitions and to the civil rights movement. It has called forth ordinary citizens, like Rosa Parks; government officials, like Daniel Ellsberg and Mark Felt; and statesmen, like Martin Luther King. Frequently, it falls to news organizations to uphold this tradition. As Justice William O. Douglas wrote in 1972, "The press has a preferred position in our constitutional scheme, not to enable it to make money, not to set newsmen apart as a favored class, but to bring to fulfillment the public's right to know."

Critics point out that even presidents must bow to the Supreme Court. But presidents are agents of the government, sworn to enforce the law. Journalists are private citizens, and Ms. Miller's actions are faithful to the Constitution. She is defending the right of Americans to get vital information from news organizations that need not fear government retaliation - an imperative defended by the 49 states that recognize a reporter's right to protect sources.

A second reporter facing a possible jail term, Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, agreed yesterday to testify before the grand jury. Last week, Time decided, over Mr. Cooper's protests, to release documents demanded by the judge that revealed his confidential sources. We were deeply disappointed by that decision.

We do not see how a newspaper, magazine or television station can support a reporter's decision to protect confidential sources even if the potential price is lost liberty, and then hand over the notes or documents that make the reporter's sacrifice meaningless. The point of this struggle is to make sure that people with critical information can feel confident that if they speak to a reporter on the condition of anonymity, their identities will be protected. No journalist's promise will be worth much if the employer that stands behind him or her is prepared to undercut such a vow of secrecy.

Protecting a Reporter's Sources

Most readers understand a reporter's need to guarantee confidentiality to a source. Before he went to jail, Mr. Farber told the court that if he gave up documents that revealed the names of the people he had promised anonymity, "I will have given notice that the nation's premier newspaper is no longer available to those men and women who would seek it out - or who would respond to it - to talk freely and without fear."

While The Times has gone to great lengths lately to make sure that the use of anonymous sources is limited, there is no way to eliminate them. The most important articles tend to be the ones that upset people in high places, and many could not be reported if those who risked their jobs or even their liberty to talk to reporters knew that they might be identified the next day. In the larger sense, revealing government wrongdoing advances the rule of law, especially at a time of increased government secrecy.

It is for these reasons that most states have shield laws that protect reporters' rights to conceal their sources. Those laws need to be reviewed and strengthened, even as members of Congress continue to work to pass a federal shield law. But at this moment, there is no statute that protects Judith Miller when she defies a federal trial judge's order to reveal who told her what about Valerie Plame Wilson's identity as an undercover C.I.A. operative.

Ms. Miller understands this perfectly, and she accepts the consequences with full respect for the court. We hope that her sacrifice will alert the nation to the need to protect the basic tools reporters use in doing their most critical work.

To be frank, this is far from an ideal case. We would not have wanted our reporter to give up her liberty over a situation whose details are so complicated and muddy. But history is very seldom kind enough to provide the ideal venue for a principled stand. Ms. Miller is going to jail over an article that she never wrote, yet she has been unwavering in her determination to protect the people with whom she had spoken on the promise of confidentiality.

The Plame Story

The case involves an article by the syndicated columnist Robert Novak, who revealed that Joseph Wilson, a retired career diplomat, was married to an undercover C.I.A. officer Mr. Novak identified by using her maiden name, Valerie Plame. Mr. Wilson had been asked by the C.I.A. to investigate whether Saddam Hussein in Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger that could be used for making nuclear weapons. Mr. Wilson found no evidence of that, and he later wrote an Op-Ed article for The Times saying he believed that the Bush administration had misrepresented the facts.

It seemed very possible that someone at the White House had told Mr. Novak about Ms. Plame to undermine Mr. Wilson's credibility and send a chilling signal to other officials who might be inclined to speak out against the administration's Iraq policy. At the time, this page said that if those were indeed the circumstances, the leak had been "an egregious abuse of power." We urged the Justice Department to investigate. But we warned then that the inquiry should not degenerate into an attempt to compel journalists to reveal their sources.

We mainly had Mr. Novak in mind then, but Mr. Novak remains both free and mum about what he has or has not told the grand jury looking into the leak. Like almost everyone, we are baffled by his public posture. All we know now is that Mr. Novak - who early on expressed the opinion that no journalists who bowed to court pressure to betray sources could hold up their heads in Washington - has offered no public support to the colleague who is going to jail while he remains at liberty.

Ms. Miller did not write an article about Ms. Plame, but the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, wants to know whether anyone in government told her about Mr. Wilson's wife and her secret job. The inquiry has been conducted with such secrecy that it is hard to know exactly what Mr. Fitzgerald thinks Ms. Miller can tell him, or what argument he offered to convince the court that his need to hear her testimony outweighs the First Amendment.

What we do know is that if Ms. Miller testifies, it may be immeasurably harder in the future to persuade a frightened government employee to talk about malfeasance in high places, or a worried worker to reveal corporate crimes. The shroud of secrecy thrown over this case by the prosecutor and the judge, an egregious denial of due process, only makes it more urgent to take a stand.

Mr. Fitzgerald drove that point home chillingly when he said the authorities "can't have 50,000 journalists" making decisions about whether to reveal sources' names and that the government had a right to impose its judgment. But that's not what the founders had in mind in writing the First Amendment. In 1971, our colleague James Reston cited James Madison's admonition about a free press in explaining why The Times had first defied the Nixon administration's demand to stop publishing the Pentagon Papers and then fought a court's order to cease publication. "Among those principles deemed sacred in America," Madison wrote, "among those sacred rights considered as forming the bulwark of their liberty, which the government contemplates with awful reverence and would approach only with the most cautious circumspection, there is no one of which the importance is more deeply impressed on the public mind than the liberty of the press."

Mr. Fitzgerald's attempts to interfere with the rights of a free press while refusing to disclose his reasons for doing so, when he can't even say whether a crime has been committed, have exhibited neither reverence nor cautious circumspection. It would compound the tragedy if his actions emboldened more prosecutors to trample on a free press.

Our Bottom Line

Responsible journalists recognize that press freedoms are not absolute and must be exercised responsibly. This newspaper will not, for example, print the details of American troop movements in advance of a battle, because publication would endanger lives and national security. But these limits cannot be dictated by the whim of a branch of government, especially behind a screen of secrecy.

Indeed, the founders warned against any attempt to have the government set limits on a free press, under any conditions. "However desirable those measures might be which might correct without enslaving the press, they have never yet been devised in America," Madison wrote.

Journalists talk about these issues a great deal, and they can seem abstract. The test comes when a colleague is being marched off to jail for doing nothing more than the job our readers expected of her, and of the rest of us. The Times has been in these fights before, beginning in 1857, when a journalist named J. W. Simonton wrote an editorial about bribery in Congress and was held in contempt by the House of Representatives for 19 days when he refused to reveal his sources. In the end, Mr. Simonton kept faith, and the corrupt congressmen resigned. All of our battles have not had equally happy endings. But each time, whether we win or we lose, we remain convinced that the public wins in the long run and that what is at stake is nothing less than our society's perpetual bottom line: the citizens control the government in a democracy.

We stand with Ms. Miller and thank her for taking on that fight for the rest of us.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company