Communication Studies, Department of


Date of this Version



Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 4:2 (June 2007), pp. 221–225; doi: 10.1080/14791420701296646


Copyright © 2007 National Communication Association; published by Routledge/Taylor & Francis. Used by permission.


This year’s intercollegiate policy debate topic calls on affirmative teams to overrule one of four Supreme Court decisions, including Ex parte Quirin, the precedent frequently invoked to justify homeland security policies such as military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees.8 In arguing to overturn Quirin, debaters employ a variety of approaches. Most teams contend that the Supreme Court’s 2006 Hamdan v. Rumsfeld decision, while helpful, does not go far enough in limiting the scope of military commissions. In this view, leaving Quirin on the books enables a troubling expansion of presidential power, with the potential to destroy transatlantic relations and abrogate US obligations to the Geneva Convention. Others use testimony, narratives, and poetry from ex-detainees like Afghan poet Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost and British memoirist Moazzam Begg to highlight the human rights abuses and torture allegations at Guantanamo Bay. If this sounds radical, consider that such cases have been met with objections from negative opponents that piecemeal reforms are cosmetic drops in the bucket, with durable systemic change only likely to come from more revolutionary measures such as presidential impeachment, anarchy, or world government.

Today’s intercollegiate debaters find themselves in a political landscape resembling 1954 in several respects. Once again, we find prominent political figures attempting to define the contours of public debate by portraying critics as unpatriotic. Vice President Cheney says that ‘‘disagreement, argument and debate are the essentials of democracy,’’ yet stipulates that charges of pre-war intelligence manipulation are ‘‘dishonest and reprehensible.’’ Such contortions are typical examples of how skillfully McCarthy’s ideological descendants attack the process of democracy in the name of democracy. The conservative punditry also does its part. While Ann Coulter accuses Iraq war critics of treason, David Horowitz revives fears of a liberal (and therefore ‘‘dangerous’’) academic elite poisoning the minds of America’s young adults. Despite these and countless other examples of McCarthyist tendencies, many directed specifically at academia, there has been no outcry about college students ‘‘taking the side of terrorists’’ in competitive debate tournaments. Why?

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