Editorial Page Editor, Quad-City Times

Has the U.S. lost all moral high ground?

I couldn't help but ponder that question a couple weeks ago, sitting across the table from Umut Acar.

"Remember what the U.S. did after 9/11," he said. "You turned two countries upside-down. You imprisoned people at Guantanamo Bay."

Acar is consul general of the Turkish Consulate in Chicago. The Quad-Cities Jewish Federation asked the editorial board to sit down with him on Aug. 31, part of a day-long speaking tour of the region.

Turkey, the only Muslim-majority constitutional Democracy, has spent more than a decade seeking admission into the E.U. But, as of late, its application looks like a pipe dream. So, too, does any romantic notion of Turkey's commitment to democratic norms.

Last year, several military commanders attempted to oust President Recep Erdogan. Tanks rolled on police stations. Fighter-bombers dropped ordnance on the presidential palace. 

The failed coup lasted just a few hours and never gained serious traction. But it provided Erdogan an excuse to consolidate power. Intellectuals, academics and political opponents were labeled terrorists and tossed in prison. Tens of thousands of kangaroo trials have purged anyone from the government who isn't in lock-step with Erdogan's regime. More than 100 journalists sit in Turkish prisons for merely writing about Turkey's Kurdish fighters or opposition political groups, both of whom the government considers terrorist organizations.

By almost no measure is Turkey still an open and free system. It's cozying up to Russia and Iran. It's backing away from the west. This year, Erdogan rammed through a referendum that did away with the prime minister post and consolidated power under the presidency. Turkey is in open political conflict with Germany, which Acar accuses of "harboring" terrorists and "provoking" Turkey simply because it permits supporters of the Kurdish PKK to march in its cities with flags supporting the group. Several German reporters have been arrested in recent weeks. 

American-style free speech is dangerous, Acar repeatedly argued. Providing order and security must be the primary aim of any government, he claimed, no matter how much dissent or expression it crushes. The "anything goes" approach in this country on display on late-night television is a symptom of moral decay, he said. He even blamed Washington D.C. police for a brawl earlier this year that footage proves was the fault of Erdogan's body guards. Pro-Kurdish protesters marched in front of the Turkish consulate after Erdogan visited the White House. Erdogan's henchmen pummeled them.

"Frankly, those protesters were within their constitutional rights," I shot back, when Acar circled back to blaming American "authorities" for allowing such an "insult." 

But, in Turkey right now, simply speaking out against the ruling regime is a threat to the state. The U.S. showed no respect to its longtime ally by permitting such protests, constitutional or not, he said. And, without blinking, Acar dressed down the quintessential right to think -- and speak -- one's mind.

"Some of what you consider expression of political will would be considered terrorist propaganda in our country," he said.

All of this is troubling, sure. Turkey is a nation of 80 million, a member of NATO and the sole example that Democracy can work in a majority Muslim country. In the past year, Turkey aggressively slid toward a dictatorship, a reality Acar denies because that's his job to do so. 

And Acar brushed off any attempt to criticize the propaganda and limits on expression. He did so by hammering on the U.S. response to 9/11, where privacy was sacrificed for security sake, all Muslims became suspect, torture and secret prisons became the norm and bombs fell on people who had nothing to do with any of it. At least, in this country, the courts and Congress, eventually, pushed back. Such checks and balances are being actively rooted out in Turkey. 

I walked out of that meeting in shock at just how far Turkey has fallen. It is cracking down on dissent. It is heaping the "terrorist" label on basically any political opponent of Erdogan. Its leaders would consider this very column "terrorist propaganda."

And yet, any American attempt to criticize Turkey's burgeoning dictatorship is met with a list of our own recent sins. 

Jon Alexander is editorial page editor at the Quad-City Times. He can be reached at jalexander@qctimes.com

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