Giving Voice to the Silenced Majority

President Bush signed the disgraceful Torture Bill yesterday.

The campaign to repeal the Bush Torture Bill, aka the Military Commissions Act of 2006, begins today. (So does the legal battle.)

There are lots of theories about how we ended up in this sad position. Here’s mine: the problem with the opposition to torture, just like the opposition to the war, is that it isn’t visible enough.

I was a kid in Washington DC during the Vietnam War.

One thing I remember vividly about those times was how visible — in your face — the opposition to the war was. I don’t mean just the demonstrations, although those were important. I mean the small things, in a day-to-day way. People wore anti-war buttons. They put peace signs on their cars. They wore black armbands. The war was an issue in the home, in the school, in the community, on TV.

Today, in big media, Keith Olbermann stands almost alone; radio and to a lesser but real extent TV and even print avoid the major issues of the day in favor of fluff and missing white women. And the coverage you get is deeply inadequate: even after the fact the New York Times, for example, treated the resolution of the faux McCain-Bush division on the Torture bill as if the administration had conceded something significant while in fact the final bill that emerged from the Senate reflected the original administration wish list in almost every way that mattered. If you rely on the big news media for your information, you would not believe in a visceral way that the opposition to the war, to Bush, or to torture, is anything near as big as polls suggest it is.

And that means that people don’t speak out as much as they might because they don’t appreciate how many of the people around them are receptive. I’m not talking about activists — I’m talking about ordinary voters and non-voters. They are the new silenced majority.

We cannot repeal this bill without Democratic majorities in both houses, and a President (probably, but not necessarily a Democrat) open to repeal. That means, among other things, someone who didn’t vote for it.

But, as too many of the Democrats in the Senate have proved by voting for this bill, they (along with John McCain) cannot be relied on to do the right thing without outside pressure. And that pressure requires, more than anything, that the opposition to this attack on the fundamentals of decency and democracy be visible in a daily and constant way.

To make that happen requires a symbol. It has to be something visible. It has to be something simple that you can make at home — it shouldn’t depend on finding a supplier or waiting for an order to turn up.

The perfect symbol should be

  • unique
  • easy to make
  • hard for principals to throw students out of school for wearing

I propose an armband. Not a plastic wristband — a real armband that you wear on your upper arm, over a shirt or jacket. Armbands are unisex, are easy to make, can be worn over almost anything, and are visible without being overly distracting or offensive. Buttons are a more traditional way of communicating a political message, but you have to buy the button from somewhere, it’s not something easily made at home.

So, an armband. But what color armband?

Around the time of the Moratorium, people wore black armbands. Those are easy to make — most people have some black construction paper or black fabric around the house. But they’re not unique: they carry both good freight (black is the color of mourning) a other freight that is not always helpful (Iraq is not Vietnam; many people who either supported the Vietnam war, or who today don’t want to be associated with its protestors would nonetheless oppose torture).

In any case, I think that mourning isn’t quite the right sentiment; something more active would be better — something which suggests that wearers want to reclaim basic American values. That might suggest that the ideal colors would be red, white, and blue, symbolizing the desire to return to traditional American values — no torture, fair trials. But the trouble with a red, white and blue armband is that it is a lot more trouble to make than a monochrome one. I am sure if I tried to make one with three stripes out of construction paper it would fall apart.

So that brings me to white. White is a practical color for an armband — everyone has white paper or fabric. Traditionally, it’s the color of purity, something we’d like to reclaim by removing this stain in the statute books. Again, though, there’s a uniqueness problem: the white band has been adopted as a symbol by many groups in the past and even the present. For example, Make Poverty History has an ongoing White Band Campaign — although theirs is one of those plastic things..

So at present I’m leaning towards a white armband. I’d appreciate comments, though, as to

  • whether a visibility campaign makes sense
  • whether a white armband is the right sort of symbol
  • and especially, how one gets this to take off.
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20 Responses to Giving Voice to the Silenced Majority

  1. Expat says:

    Humble suggestion: white armband stained with drops of red, as a bandage over a bloody wound.

  2. E-mart says:

    I fear that plain white arm bands would too easily connote the “surrender” meme — that opposing the MCA means giving in to the terrorists (I cringe even as I type it). Even three years later, I still get emails forwarded from conservative family members referencing French surrender, including one yesterday of the French army knife, which features all corkscrews and a white flag. So that connotation still resonates with some people.

  3. Jesse says:

    As with many of the campaigns that have garnered national attentional, it needs to start on college campuses, particularly with the faculty. From there it transfers to the students, encourages and gives them the resources to push it forward. Once that has started to happen, the faculty and students can openly join together and collectively disseminate the movement throughout segments of the community.

    There are a few setbacks with using this method, namely, the college faculty need to be educated about what this is, what it means, why it’s important, and the potential ramifications of it. The ones who have a primary appreciation of it are those like you who are operating from a legal mindset with a clear understanding of all those aspects. I don’t think many people, or faculty, have that yet. Otherwise, there would have been a stronger outcry from the public on it. Therefore, I would suggest encouraging law professors at colleges nationwide to begin educating the faculty in other disciplines about this, to get the ball rolling.

    On a separate note, I’m a law student at The University of Miami (1L). With how critical this is, I’m shocked and almost appalled that I have heard virtually nothing about this legislation, what it is, why it’s important etc. from ANY of my professors, before, during or after its passage. Likewise, much of this sounds remeniscent of the ideological debates between blackstone and bentham, yet, we have not so much as mentioned who these two figures were, let alone any of the key historical events or ideas that shaped the law and made it the way it is for us. (Hopefully we’ll cover this at some point, otherwise I’m asking for a refund). I think it’s vital from a long term prospective for professors to emphasize the importance of things like habeus, access to attorneys, freedom from search and seizure without just cause; otherwise students will go out thinking they are just one small part of the puzzle, thereby expendable, instead of thinking that they are the foundation underlying the puzzle. So far, I’m not seeing it happen. I hope it does sooner then later, otherwise it will appear as though it’s just one more element to be absorbed.

  4. elliottg says:

    I would wear a button because it would be unusual for me to wear one and it could have text that would instantly state my position. “Repeal the torture bill”. It doesn’t have to be a campaign with a lot of marketing if you can get buttoned up types to wear it. The idea that someone who outwardly is “normal” would go to the great length of putting a button on would be enough to foster conversation. Given the media bias- every outlet said that the bill allowed “hard questioning” with no mention of torture – and the sound clips from Bush and the CIA director praising the bill, you need dialogue to get the information out there not just a statement of where you personally stand.

  5. rachelpick says:

    I am not afiliated with these guys, but a simple search reveals:

  6. thoughtcrime says:

    How about a parchment colored band? (to denote the constitution) with the words “HABEUS NOW!” written in red

  7. Steve says:

    Given your requirement that the symbol be one that school principals cannot ban, I don’t think the arm band would work. It’s just too easy to say “take that off”.

    I’d suggest maybe just a specific color for an article of clothing — say, a green tee shirt. I suppose you’d have to be careful not to conflict with gang “colors”, though.

  8. Richard says:


    This comment is rather long, but i urger you to read all of it.

    Since visual symbolism and easy of construction is need.The answer to the arm band is simple; A Blue armband with a white star. Since the arm band can be made easily this way, also Shirts and Buttons can be made pretty easily with this symbol. Any second grader with a pair of safety scissors and glue can do the armband. To added boot you already have a t-shirt out there,

    To boot you already have a great number of comic book fandom to draw on, thanks captain America.

    Since the symbolism is suppose to represent true American values, i.e fair trials, non-torture, freedom & justice for all, We should turn to the one symbol thats already out there standing for this; the Stars and Stripes.

    The flag of the United States consists of 13 equal horizontal stripes of red (top and bottom) alternating with white, with a blue rectangle in the canton bearing 50 small, white, five-pointed stars arranged in nine offset horizontal rows of six stars (top and bottom) alternating with rows of five stars. The 50 stars on the flag represent the 50 U.S. states and the 13 stripes represent the original Thirteen Colonies that rebelled against the British crown.

    Because of its symbolism, the starred blue canton is called the “union”. This is a perfect color to show the countries unity, wither your a Republican, or Democrat, something more important stands out. That your an American, that you believe in all the freedoms that our forefathers set down for us.

    The white star also represents Unity of the states for a common goal. The star would be the Unity of Country, no as a set of divided states, but as the common wealth. The color white would also represent our desire to go back to being the good guy. American’s love the idea that we are the good guy, the Hero of the world.

    Hero’s don’t torture people, Hero’s don’t detain innocent people and hold them without charging them. Good Guys don’t mislead their fellow country men, and Good guys don’t push their allies away. Good guys and Hero’s are above partisan beliefs. They believe in the greater good, the prosperity and gain of people all around the world.

    We must take back our liberties, and we must take back our country.

    “Those who sacrifice liberty for safety deserve neither.” ~ Ben Franklin

    and after everything that has happened to this great country during this administration i believe that statement is more relevant than it should be.

    Thanks for your time

    if any one has any ideas on getting this out or comments

    Send emails to

  9. Abe says:

    I would really be interested in something like this. Reading the news doesn’t seem like reading something real.

  10. CL says:

    Given your requirement that the symbol be one that school principals cannot ban, I don’t think the arm band would work. It’s just too easy to say “take that off”.

    Steve–the armbands are pretty much guaranted to be safe. Peacefully wearing an armband is the exact fact pattern of Tinker.

  11. Jane says:

    CL is right that it would violate the Constitution for a principal to tell a student to take an armband off, but the reality is that principals can still pretty much do what they want until a parent complains. (Perhaps the subtext of Tinker is that kids have free speech rights at school when their parents agree with the message. But where the parents are on the school’s side, maybe not so much. See Hazelwood.) For such a campaign to be effective, a way of educating young people about the extent of their rights at school would be a good thing. While armbands may be constitutionally protected, they are only safe in a practical sense if students (and their parents) know how to assert their rights.

  12. CL says:

    Good point, Jane. I think I was being too optimistic.

  13. janinsanfran says:

    May I recommend this:

    My partner wore one (of the plain ones, not Jefferson) when speaking at the weekly anti-torture vigil outside Boalt Hall where the disgraceful Professor Yoo holds forth.

  14. Thomas Jefferson says:

    What about a simple white armband with “Eternal Vigilance” in red or blue?

  15. Abe says:

    I think the blue armband with white star is the best idea so far. A white fabric base runs the risk of being associated with surrender, but what sticks out to me most is it looks cheap. T-shirts with a white base are a classic promotional item because they’re least costly. Any other solid color would come across classier. I know that’s not really the point, but perception is relevant. (Also it’s more obvious when white gets dirty)

  16. just wondering says:

    Instead of an arm band, how about just a shred of parchment-colored paper pinned to the sleeve or lapel, perhaps with some calligraphy-style excerpts of especially relevant bits of the Constitution on it. This could represent a mass effort to preserve what’s left of the Constitution with the hope of one day restoring it to its former glory.

  17. Wilder says:

    I’d just like to add a “snap,snap” to the blue armband-white star concept. Best idea articulated that I have read yet.

  18. Danny Bone says:

    Is there any form that citizens can sign, especially online, to put this bill up to a national vote?

  19. Tina Louise says:

    We started a campaign here in England that is spreading throughout the world and would love you to be a part of it. ARMS AGAINST WAR uses a simple white fabric armband – free to all by using sheets, t-shirts etc. – as a symbol to indicate that the wearer is saying “I want an end to the war in Iraq”.

    Other anti-war/peace groups and individuals wear this symbol as a way of showing unity and protesting at all times and in all places – without fear of arrest, as there are no words to offend anyone. This symbol is free and instantly available, we have no other agenda to agree to, no political associations and are just lots of individuals who oppose the war in Iraq by making signifying the one simple statement “I want an end to the war in Iraq”….by the wearing of the band.

    Please do have a look at the website and see if maybe this would suit your purpose too – we would love you to join us 🙂

    Nice to read you all.

    Tina Louise

  20. M Ray says:

    I like the white armband idea much better than the white star on blue. For one, the simplicity is appealing, in my opinion. My major objection to the white star on blue, however, is that it seems similar to some representations of the Israeli flag/nation. I do like the symbolism as presented, but I’m surprised that no one thus far has raised a concern over this point. I understand that we are probably talking about a five-pointed star rather than the star of David, but I can see this causing some serious backlash. I mean, come on here, we’re already saying that the media twists information to their own ends, and I can just imagine them digging up a load of holocaust survivors who feel trumatized by reminders of Nazi Germany. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Captain America, but it seems like this is asking for trouble. Possibly a better solution would be an Amnesty International armband, but there, too, the problem arises of the difficult in making one. I think the white is a good idea, or perhaps, pale blue. I think the pale blue would distance it somewhat from the surrender issue, and we get the whole blue field unity thing to boot.

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