The New Crusade. The Cold War Pales
As President Bush tries to move the country toward war in the name of freedom, his Attorney General systematically limits freedom. Did the 9/11 fiends succeed beyond their expectations? They may have incited an interminable war between civilizations as Harvard’s Samuel Huntington predicted. They certainly have altered our lives and not for the better.
"You know", a friend told me recently, "I’m afraid to say what I think. At airports I fear that screeners will find prohibited substances in my bag, shoes or under my blouse. I feel surveillance cameras watching me. I stay away from Muslims, don’t dare voice opinions that might not sound patriotic and speak in coded messages on the phone even about personal matters".
That’s the price, I said, for waging war against the bin man and his ilk.
"I think this has more to do with state power than it does with combating bin Laden, Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein or weapons of mass destruction", she said. "The 9/11 acts provided the national security state managers with a platform; no, a crusade. Even shopping has taken second place to the security rants of John Ashcroft and the vengeful vows of our intellectually challenged president. It’s not that I dismiss the terrorist threat, but I’m more scared of the zealots in the White House and their backers like the Reverend Jerry Falwell who opined recently on ‘60 Minutes’ that ‘Mohammed was a terrorist’ referring to the Prophet".
I reminded her that periodic crusades appear throughout American history, like the recent Cold War.
"I never thought I’d look back nostalgically on the Cold War", she said, "Times when mutually assured destruction stood for US policy. I think I may have had more freedom in the 1960s, 70s and 80s than now".
My friend’s too young to remember McCarthyism, the witch hunts of the late forties and 1950s, the Smith and McCarren Acts that threatened basic liberties, the Attorney General’s List and the Subversive Activities Control Board and the infamous HUAC House Un-American Activities Committee. I recall how scoundrels like California ’s Richard Nixon and Florida ’s George Smathers red-baited their way into office and I have vivid recollections of hiding under my grade school desk during periodic nuclear air raid drills.
If that didn’t scare the pants off us, Joe McCarthy did. The Junior Senator from Wisconsin called press conferences and charged that the State Department had 181 "Reds" inside; the next morning he elevated the number. He was drunk that night, or the next morning, or both times. It didn’t matter. The media loved the headlines. It sold papers: Reds everywhere! Bolsheviks in the universities, unions and churches! Subversives posing as librarians and veterinarians! (Yes, Wisconsin passed a law requiring veterinarians to sign a loyalty oath before treating cows.) And, of course, the commies had invaded radio, TV and Hollywood !
Any mountebank politician could win a headline by accusing someone of having communist ties. Mini-McCarthys abounded. Congressional witch hunters traveled the country to name names in the media, scaring the public about the breadth and depth of the "Red Threat". Actors, directors, writers, meat packers, teachers, librarians and university professors who belonged or might have belonged to the Community Party, or other "subversive" organizations were fired.
During the Cold War the government offered us the prism of panic through which to see the world. In this warped kaleidoscope, the USSR loomed as a rival super power waiting to attack us.
In the late 1940s and early 50s, the uncurious media didn’t ask how this supposed challenger that had just suffered more than 20 million dead, more than 20 million wounded and 200 cities destroyed from Nazi attacks during World War II would miraculously recover so quickly and threaten aggression. The reality was that famine, homelessness and misery pervaded that immense country led by its ruthless dictator, Joe Stalin.
Another axiom offered by our government, was that our own nuclear weapons would protect us in case of a Soviet attack. This "crackpot logic" as the late C. Wright Mills called it, extended to overall Cold War ideology. The West’s free and efficient way of life, the argument went, was infinitely superior to the Soviet’s inefficient and un-free system, one that failed in most ways to provide a decent life to its people and kept them oppressed politically and religiously and lacked internal cohesion except for the fist.
Nevertheless, their ideology somehow posed an immediate and mortal threat to the western way of life along with their nuclear weapons, the first of which they acquired in 1949. Bolshevism could magically spread anywhere, not only to the naive in our own lands, but especially to the poor and emerging countries of the world. So Cold War ideology emphasized defense which meant that Congress allocate large portions of the budget to the military, for weapons production and for a standing army of considerable proportion: a first in peacetime America .
As the conservative and increasingly grumpy Eisenhower retired in 1960, with his farewell warning about the growing strength of the military industrial complex, John F. Kennedy became president. In October 1962, less than two years after he took office, Kennedy, who had campaigned on a "missile gap" slogan, faced the real nuclear balance. But, as Kennedy soon discovered, the United States possessed 15 times as many intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles as the Soviets. Moreover, by the end of the decade we had forged a triad of air, sea and ground missiles, making us invulnerable from first strike attack. But that didn’t stop the panic rhetoric about the Soviet menace.
In 1961, I spent two weeks looking at the Soviet Union from Moscow , at the very time that Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, was circling the planet. While their space achievements impressed me, I did not see the Soviet economy as a serious threat to the West. The Marxist-Leninist rhetoric had little relationship to everyday reality, and this gap increased in the 1970s and 80s. In 1984, I returned to the USSR , now a country in disarray. Drunkenness and corruption had become pervasive. Moscow stores were empty of goods. Nothing seemed to work except for the space program. The Soviet military was getting its butt kicked in Afghanistan and the Prime Minister, Chernenko, was dead - literally.
But to White House officials, facts did not change the panicky oratory of US policy. President Reagan declared the Soviets more dangerous than ever and demanded a military buildup just as Kennedy did. Those who demurred earned the label of "soft", "naive" or possibly "Soviet apologists". But the restrictive mood of McCarthyism had given way to shopping as the universal value, one that did not coincide with a climate of fear. So, even under the right wing Reagan and Bush regimes, Americans felt free to speak their minds.
Since 9/11, however, a forbidding chill has entered the political climate. In his new National Security Strategy guidelines Bush declares Cold War deterrence and containment doctrines dead and introduces us to new and imperial tinged phrases like "full spectral dominance" and "preemptive first strike", fundamental shifts in US foreign policy.
Attorney General John Ashcroft presents the home front equivalents in the name of fighting terrorism. He withholds relevant information which, logically, means that only he and the terrorists can know when and where they will attack us. Americans, Ashcroft demands, must cede some of their freedom to gain security.
Using this casuistry, Ashcroft demanded and got the passage of The USA. Patriot Act. Congress, in a state of panic, voted for it without holding serious debate. But Ashcroft has never made clear why the FBI and CIA will somehow become more efficient if we give up our liberties.
Periodically, the government arrests Muslims here and elsewhere and charges them with crimes more horrendous than the evidence presented against them. Even under McCarthyism we didn’t have military tribunals, US citizens charged as "enemy combatants" and a suspension of habeas corpus at the government’s whim.
Ashcroft has dispensed with the guidelines the courts and Congress laid down to curb abuses of our civil liberties after the FBI’s COINTELPRO program was exposed. During the 1960s and early 70s, agents infiltrated legitimate organizations and often provoked illegal acts. Now, the FBI can again infiltrate and disrupt political and religious organizations and eavesdrop on their phone and e-mail communications. On August 1, Operation TIPS (Terrorist Information and Prevention System) began organizing an army of millions of citizen-spies.
Under national security dictates, we expect routine delays for searches at airports and when crossing borders. Business takes the back seat to the amorphous ‘security’ concept. Trucks that once breezed into the United States from Mexico filled with products and parts from cheap-labor factories now must wait for hours. This costs the multinational corporations hundreds of millions of dollars. Time, in the eyes of the national security enforcers, is no longer money. And a rule is a rule. Recently I saw the airport security geniuses ask a 75-year-old blind woman to remove her shoes.
In this new era of heightened and often hysterical patriotism, professors have been fired for expressing opinions that administrations have deemed "unpatriotic". Like my friend, people are scared to speak their minds. The chilling effect syndrome has begun to set in.
I traveled to Iraq with Congressman Nick Rahall (D-WV), whose Republican opponent called him a traitor for trying to convince Iraqi officials to readmit UN weapons inspectors. The right wing columnist George Will slandered Congressmen Bonior (D-MI) and McDermott (D-WA), comparing their recent visit to Iraq, for the same purpose as Rahall’s, with "Hanoi Jane" and the appeasement of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who made concessions to Hitler in 1938.
"You went to Iraq?" people ask me in awe. "What did they do to you when you returned?" Or, "Weren’t you aware that they could have labeled you as a terrorist or an Al Qaeda collaborator, and locked you up without charges without the right to an attorney, no habeas corpus and so on?"
Can you see how some people look back nostalgically on the good old cold war?
Copyright 2002 Radio Progreso