Silencing dissent is shamefulIt used to be that the Secret Service was in the business of saving the president from bullets, but nowadays agents must think their mission includes protecting President Bush's feelings and the sanctity of his photo opportunities.

Though it doesn't come as a surprise in an administration that designs every presidential appearance with all the care of a Broadway musical - remember "Mission Accomplished"? - the Bush campaign's obsessive attention to detail is crossing the line into violations of civil rights.

In West Virginia this summer, a Republican couple was arrested at the behest of the Secret Service for wearing anti-Bush T-shirts at a Bush rally. They were removed from the rally by police and now are suing the Secret Service and the Bush campaign official who choreographed the arrests.

Two weeks ago, at another Bush rally in Pennsylvania, seven AIDS activists who heckled President Bush were shoved and pulled from the room - some by their hair, one by her bra straps - and then arrested for disorderly conduct and detained for an hour, according to the Washington Post.

After Bush campaign bouncers handled the evictions, Secret Service agents, accompanied by Bush's personal aide, supervised the arrests and detention of the activists and blocked the news media from access to the hecklers, the Post reported.

Reporters who wanted to speak to the protesters were told if they did they wouldn't be allowed to return to the event.

Meanwhile, the GOP is taking extraordinary steps to make sure only true believers are admitted to events attended by top officials. Besides routinely pre-screening attendees, at a campaign rally in New Mexico where Vice President Dick Cheney spoke, anyone wishing to attend was required to first sign an oath of loyalty to the Republican cause.

All campaigns make an effort to minimize the impact of hecklers, but the intensity of efforts to sanitize the audience at Bush-Cheney appearances raises thorny questions about our leaders' commitment to democratic values.

For all our vaunted love of freedom of speech, in practice Americans have rarely exercised it to the extent of the British, where the prime minister must make his points heard over catcalls even in the halls of Parliament. But all the same, American democracy historically has been well lubricated by dissent.

When a president surrounds himself with yes-men and insulates himself from protests, the natural result is an imperial sense of infallibility. Listening to protests and other unpleasant messages is part and parcel of leadership.

This is a president who only listens to what he wants to hear, who surrounds himself with agents who protect his delicate sensibilities from the inconvenience of dissenting voices.

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