Don’t bother us with facts, we’re fighting a war here. That’s basically the story of all wars – at least in their early stages – and this one against terrorism (which, as it turns out, is indistinguishable from a war with Afghanistan) is no exception.

Already we’ve seen television commentators, networks, newspapers and college professors intimidated for presenting an opinion that differed from the official party line. Worst of all, it’s the public rather than the government that’s been doing the intimidating.

The American people seem willing, even eager, to go along unquestioningly with the official government analysis of the conflict we’re now engaged in. That analysis goes something like this: We are the targets of terrorism because we are too good.

The terrorists, who are evil incarnate, hate us because we love freedom and democracy and are able to brush after every meal. Where we are brave, they are cowardly; where we are honest, they are treacherous. Our virtue is demonstrated by our affluence, their unworthiness by their poverty.

That is more or less what we are all supposed to believe, and woe unto him who disagrees in whole or in part. When Bill Maher, the host of ABC’s “Politically Incorrect,” suggested that it was perhaps more cowardly to drop bombs on people from on high rather than kill them by blowing yourself up with them, the public came down on him like a wolf on the fold. Several television stations dropped his show and he was forced to apologize and back away from his opinion.

Several college professors around the nation have been threatened with disciplinary action for arguing that the terrorism was the result of our anti-democratic, oil-driven policies in the Middle East, rather than our goodness. Another professor got in trouble with his Islamic students when he wondered aloud how the Muslim world could condemn the attacks in New York, yet condone the suicide bombings that take place in Israel.

None of those positions is altogether untenable. (If you think this war has nothing to do with oil, think again.) And I myself have argued Maher’s position – that it is more cowardly to bomb from the air than kill on the ground – although I wouldn’t do it now.

I have since come to believe that it is neither cowardly nor brave to bomb people, either from the air or on the ground. It is merely war. The object of a war is to inflict maximum casualties on the enemy with minimal casualties on your side, and cowardice has nothing to do with it.

So, while Maher might be wrong, it doesn’t mean he is unpatriotic. He was merely responding to the absurd assertion by President Bush that the suicide attack on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon were “cowardly acts.” More to the point, he has the right to be wrong. You could look it up; it’s in the Constitution.

The right of virtually unfettered free speech is perhaps the most remarkable right guaranteed us because it is so counter-intuitive. How can it be a good thing for society to let people say whatever they please about anything they please? Feelings will be hurt, reputations ruined, chaos will result.

All of which is true to a degree, but that is counterbalanced by the fact that there is a by-product to the chaos that makes it all worth while – truth. It is free speech (not guns, as our wacko friends in the NRA would have us believe) that is the despotic government’s worst enemy. Without it, the best you can hope for is a sham democracy, one afraid to put its policies to the test of open debate.

And you can’t have the right to free speech unless you grant it to others, people who will offend you with disagreeable opinions. It can be unpleasant, free speech.

So let’s pause a bit before we pick up stones to punish the oddball critics among us. Listen to what they’re saying.

You never know; they could be on to something.

Donald Kaul recently retired as Washington columnist for the Des Moines Register.