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An unprecedented, national 'e-conversation'

There's nothing good to find in the current standoff between the Syrian government and the United States -- people there are dying as diplomats ponder, politicians posture and nations take strategic sides.

But consider the value of "free press" and "free speech" in taking to an amazing new level the public debate in the United States over what to do next -- a process that in many nations surely would have been a secretive discussion.

From town halls of the air to halls in real towns, from Sunday talk shows on TV to curbside talk on Main Street, from mobile devices to desktop computers, Americans of all ranks and views are engaged in what is a historic -- at least, by virtue of being largely electronic -- national discussion over national priorities and military options.

The discussions were prompted by the near-universal and immediate availability of information from Syria, including horrifying images of victims of gas attacks. President Obama's Tuesday speech to the nation brought out immediate social media commentary from the powerful to the passionate, from videos on Vine to thoughts on Twitter.

The blog SocialTimes reported this week that the key word "Syria" hit a peak of about 11,498 tweets per minute just as the speech was wrapping up. Some samples:

On Fox News' "Hot" Twitter Box, this from "Matt Drudge" (possibly the well-known blogger): "Doesn't everyone realize America deserves Obama? He is us. He perfectly mirrors our confusion and division. In the end, it wasn't about him."

On MSNBC's site, this tweet from House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.: "Pres. Obama's leadership brought diplomatic solutions back to the table, shows his willingness to exhaust every remedy before use of force."

Twitter reported that the White House turned to the Twittersphere to tout Obama's upcoming remarks, sending out about 11:15 a.m. ET: "Tonight at 9 pm ET, President Obama will address the nation on #Syria. Tune in here --> http://wh.gov/syria , pic.twitter.com/wJHvk1Y1P2." And, Twitter noted, British prime minister David Cameron took to tweeting recently that "I've just spoken to @BarackObama again on #Syria developments. Details at my Liaison Committee appearance at 4 p.m."

Where once Twitter's 140-character limit was held in low regard among those shaping public opinion, it's now the venue of choice for immediate reaction and commentary. Even the Pope took to Twitter to join in the debate over the proper response to alleged chemical weapon use by the Bashar Al-Assad regime: "War never again! Never again war!"

Different media were at play some 215 years ago when sharp political commentary among newspapers in the U.S. over the possibility -- and, for some, the desirability -- of war with France led to the Sedition Act providing for the jailing of those openly critical of Congress and the White House.

Some 25 people were charged under the Act, with 11 convictions. But the move to suppress free speech left a sour public taste less than a decade after the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights were enacted -- and the law was allowed to expire in 1801.

From draft protests during the Civil War to anti-war demonstrations, protesters took to the streets to express contrarian views about government policies. But today, among the most visible protest groups are ones like "Anonymous" and the "Syrian Electronic Army" -- a shadowy group of pro-Assad government hackers who launch so-called "denial of service" cyber-attacks that can effectively shut down a website for a time or mangle its content.

Unfettered by and unconcerned about government control, the e-debate in the U.S. over Syria rages openly and broadly. Citizens speaking their minds to the high and powerful.

The irony may well have escaped him, but even Russian President Vladimir Putin -- busy putting down freely operating news media in own nation -- took to the Op-Ed print and electronic pages of the New York Times on Sept. 12, to make his case directly to American citizens for a non-military response to the Syrian civil war.

The power of a real "marketplace of ideas," made possible by freedom of speech and press. And thus far, anyway, no one is calling for Sedition Act II.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Washington-based Newseum Institute and senior vice president of its First Amendment Center. gpolicinski@newseum.org