Minutes before the U.S. president would tell Congress how much he appreciates "responsible criticism and counsel," the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq was dragged from a gallery overlooking the House chamber, handcuffed and arrested for the "crime" of wearing a T-shirt that read: "2,245 dead. How many more?"
Cindy Sheehan, who had been invited to attend George Bush’s State of the Union address by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, the California Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, did not put the "dangerous" shirt on for the event. The woman whose protest last summer outside the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, drew international attention to the anti-war movement had been wearing it at events earlier in the day.
Indeed, as Sheehan, who had passed through Capitol security monitors without incident, noted, "I knew that I couldn’t disrupt the address because Lynn had given me the ticket and I didn’t want to be disruptive out of respect for her."
No one has suggested that Sheehan was in any way disruptive. So why was she arrested?
Because, as Sheehan recounts, she was identified as a dissident.
Before the arrest, media reports buzzed about official concern over Sheehan’s presence. And, as she was being dragged from a room where Bush would shortly extol the virtues of freedom and liberty, police explicitly told Sheehan that she was being removed "because you were protesting."
Capitol Police and other security officials, whose rough treatment of Sheehan was witnessed by dozens of people who attended Bush’s speech, said she was arrested for "unlawful conduct." Conveniently, she was held until after the president finished speaking. The next day. the charges were dropped.
Is there really a law against wearing a political T-shirt to the State of the Union address? No.
The Capitol Police do have protocols that are followed in order to avoid "incidents" during major events. But their own actions Tuesday night confirm that Sheehan was singled out for rough justice.
Beverly Young, the wife of Rep. C.W. Bill Young, a Florida Republican who chairs the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, showed up for the State of the Union address sporting a T-shirt that read, "Support the Troops Defending Our Freedom." When Capitol Police asked her to leave the gallery because she was wearing clothing that featured a political message, Young says, she argued loudly with officers and called one of them "an idiot."
But Young was not handcuffed. She was not dragged from the Capitol. She was not arrested. She was not jailed.
Sheehan, who caused no ruckus, was arrested not because she engaged in "unlawful conduct." Rather, by all accounts, she was arrested because of what her T-shirt said and, by extension, because of what she believes.
That makes this a most serious matter. Rep. Pete Stark, the California Democrat who is one of the senior members of the House, is right when he said that Sheehan’s arrest by officers he refers to as "the president’s Gestapo" tells us a lot more about George Bush and the sorry state of our basic liberties in the midst of the president’s open-ended "war on terror" than anything that was said in the State of the Union address. "It shows he still has a thin skin," Stark said.
It also shows that the father of the Constitution, James Madison, was right when he warned that, in times of war, the greatest danger to America would not be foreign foes but presidents and their minions, who would abuse the powers of the executive branch with the purpose of "subduing the force of the people."
This one incident involving one T-shirt is a minor matter. But, seen in the context of the mounting evidence of constraints on legitimate protest, warrant-less wiretaps and the abuses of the Patriot Act, it reminds us of the truth of Madison’s warning that "no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."