The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Feel free to criticize people who spread Russian lies. But don’t call them ‘treasonous.’

Former Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando on Feb. 25. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

Truth is the first casualty of war, as the saying goes. That might be accurate, but there’s another common casualty that we must be careful to preserve: tolerance for dissent.

Consider the recent uncharacteristically immoderate comment from Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) in his criticism of former Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. Gabbard had contended that the United States funded “biolabs” in Ukraine that could result in the release of “dangerous pathogens” if they are destroyed in the war there. This claim came close to echoing false Russian claims that the United States was funding labs in Ukraine to make illegal biological weapons for use against Russia. Romney responded by castigating Gabbard on Twitter for her “treasonous lies.”

They might be lies; who knows what Gabbard actually believes? But they are far from treasonous. Charging political opponents with treason was an old ploy of English monarchs, so the Founders made sure to narrowly define treason in the Constitution. Gabbard’s statements do not “levy war against” the United States or give “aid and comfort” to our enemies, as the venerable document requires. Indeed, we are not even at war with Russia, even if many consider it our enemy.

Labeling speech, however ill-conceived or untrue, as treason only serves to stoke the passions that lead to mob rule. It does no favors for liberal democracy, which Romney takes great pains to exalt.

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If Gabbard’s statements are treasonous, what else would qualify? Bernie Sanders’s positive assessments of the Marxist Sandinista government in Nicaragua or Fidel Castro’s Cuba during the Cold War, for example, would seem to give more aid and comfort to our enemies than Gabbard’s assertions. People should be careful when labeling speech as disloyal and potentially criminal. There’s a real danger those words can become action.

Take the remarks from progressive commentators such as Whoopi Goldberg and Keith Olbermann. Goldberg used her perch as a host on ABC’s “The View” to criticize Gabbard and Fox News host Tucker Carlson for making false statements about biolabs, adding that the government “used to arrest people for doing stuff like this.” Olbermann backed that up in a tweet, calling Gabbard and Carlson “Russian assets” and saying, “There’s a case for detaining them militarily.” He tried to justify that by saying “there is a war,” but of course we are not at war.

This sort of hyperventilation is exactly what leads to the suppression of legitimate freedoms. It’s why the government blocked the mailing of antiwar newspapers and imprisoned antiwar speakers during World War I. It also led to the internment of about 120,000 U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II. Both acts were passion-fueled abrogations of long-standing constitutional liberties and are now rightly condemned. But that is of little comfort to those who saw their lives, liberties and property taken away because they had the temerity to dissent or simply exist.

Truly treasonous, punishable acts are those unambiguously meant to harm or destroy the United States. Providing secrets about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union, as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg did, clearly qualifies. So does producing propaganda broadcasts for an enemy during wartime directed at undermining the morale of American troops, as the woman known as “Axis Sally” did during World War II. Expressing opinions, no matter how malign or odious, does not.

I don’t have to like Gabbard’s or Carlson’s comments to think they have the right to make them. In fact, I don’t like them. There’s no evidence the United States engaged in anything nefarious with its involvement in medical labs in Ukraine. Moreover, Vladimir Putin has been clear for decades that he wants to restore the Soviet Union, and he has attacked countries, imprisoned dissidents and poisoned his enemies to achieve that goal. His invasion of Ukraine was monstrous and unprovoked, and his conduct of that war has been barbarous and inhumane. President Biden and his Western allies are right to arm Ukrainian resistance; if anything, they aren’t doing enough.

But I would never label others as treasonous or threaten them with imprisonment. Liberal democracies are defined by their tolerance. Disagreeing with the government in a liberal democracy does not make one disloyal, much less treasonous. That’s not an element of weakness; it’s the source of democratic strength.

Protecting that strength is especially important in times of stress and high emotions such as these. Maintaining our democracy will be essential to winning the current global battle against autocracy. Failure to do so would be more dangerous to our country than anything we might now seek to suppress.

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