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The Bush administration's attack on our civil liberties
A return to McCarthyism?

August 2, 2002 | Page 8

USING THE "war against terrorism" as their excuse, George W. Bush and his henchman John Ashcroft have led an all-out assault on political opposition at home. SUE SANDLIN answers the question: Are we experiencing a new McCarthyism?

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SINCE SEPTEMBER 11, the Bush administration's attacks on civil liberties have come at a dizzying speed. Thousands of immigrants were rounded up and deported or detained without appeal. The Feds got increased powers to spy under the USA-PATRIOT Act. And now the Terrorism Information and Prevention System, or "TIPS," is supposed to recruit people to snitch on their neighbors and coworkers.

All of this is leading many people to wonder whether the bad old days of McCarthyism have returned. Named for Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.) who led the witch-hunt in Congress, McCarthyism refers to the wave of political repression during the late 1940s and early 1950s that targeted the Communist Party, people in the party's orbit and left-wing activists in general.

This was the period following the Second World War, when the U.S. had emerged as a world superpower, with the USSR as its main rival. The U.S.-USSR rivalry was called the Cold War, and it produced the biggest arms race in history, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and proxy wars around the world between forces supported by the two superpowers.

At home, McCarthy and his fellow witch-hunters claimed that they were rooting out "communist infiltrators." The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was launched in the 1940s during the Roosevelt administration, and in 1947, it began its notorious investigation of Hollywood.

But the blacklists went far beyond Hollywood, reaching into practically every section of society and having a chilling effect on those who dared to speak out. Lawyers who represented clients before HUAC were themselves questioned, leftists were driven out of trade unions, and teachers were blacklisted from schools. People not only lost their jobs, but some had their marriages wrecked and their kids beaten up at school.

The most horrific case was that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, rank-and-file members of the Communist Party who were executed in 1953 for supposedly being "atomic spies." Afterward, McCarthy would threaten witnesses called before HUAC with the same fate. The message was clear: "If you stand up and fight back, we can kill you."

The Communist Party in the U.S. was essentially destroyed through this period, and radicals of any kind were driven from the labor movement. The government's repressive apparatus grew beyond official government bodies--and came to include social and business organizations and neighbors turning in neighbors.

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SO IS this what we're facing now? Are we experiencing a new McCarthyism? With each dirty trick that Bush pulls out of his sleeve, it seems like we might be headed in that direction. But can something as awful and so recently regarded as an embarrassment be re-legitimized?

The first question to ask is why the government is doing this. During every war that the U.S. has entered since the beginning of the 20th century, political leaders claimed that they were protecting freedom and democracy. Yet nothing could be further than the truth.

The reality is that the U.S. goes to war to protect the profits and power of the people at the top, expand its influence and domination around the world and show its "enemies" and "allies" who's the boss.

Of course, the U.S. government can't just say that they're waging war to protect the rich. The politicians have to whip up patriotism and convince people that the government is fighting for them. The real war aims can't be exposed. That's why it's so important, from the standpoint of the ruling class, to suppress dissent. So every imperialist war launched abroad has been accompanied by a war at home.

All this has been true about Washington's "war on terrorism" since September 11. The Bush administration has exploited the tragedy to push ahead on its imperial aims abroad.

Plus, the war has provided the perfect pretext to pursue an anti-worker agenda at home--from giving airline bosses the cover for mass layoffs with cost-cutting "restrictions" on bailout money, to the latest attempt to ban unions from the new Department of Homeland Security.

During McCarthyism, U.S. leaders used the "war on communism" to justify their attack. The hysteria whipped up about "reds" meant that few people questioned U.S. military adventures abroad, like the Korean War. And it meant that U.S. rulers could squash the left wing of the powerful workers movement of the 1930s.

McCarthyism's impact was huge, but it didn't last forever. Growing numbers of people eventually saw the terrible contradiction of "protecting our freedom and democracy" by taking away the right to speak out. Today, McCarthyism is viewed as a horrible chapter in U.S. history.

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ASHCROFT AND Co. have been relatively successful in exploiting the September 11 tragedy and whipping up fear of new "terrorist threats" to push through repressive measures. But there are factors that constrain them.

For one, memories of the government's past abuses, such as McCarthyism in the 1950s and Watergate in the 1970s, haven't completely faded. And new reasons to distrust the government arise all the time--especially the recent wave of corporate scandals, which politicians are up to their eyeballs in.

Even more important, the U.S. today faces an increasingly unstable economy and an increasing gap between rich and poor--the opposite of the McCarthy era of the 1950s, which was underpinned by a period of unprecedented economic expansion.

In the 1950s, most workers could expect to enjoy a better standard of living with each passing year. This was the era of the American Dream. But today, U.S. bosses are demanding that workers tighten their belts at the same time as they give away their rights.

So, for example, when Minnesota state workers threatened to strike in September, Gov. Jesse Ventura denounced them for "playing into the hands of terrorists" and threatened them with jail time.

These contradictions all contribute to brewing anger from below--anger that could undermine support for Bush's war at home. Plus, all of the conditions that gave rise to developing social movements before September 11--the monstrous criminal justice system and the ravages of globalization, for example--are still there.

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THE GREATEST lesson to be learned from McCarthyism is the importance of standing up and fighting back.

While the antiwar movement remains small today, there have been important fightbacks and successes--for example, the activists who defeated the University of California's attempts to sanction Students for Justice in Palestine, or the academics who organized petitions protesting a blacklist of antiwar professors. And there are signs that growing numbers of people are becoming disgusted with the blatant attacks on civil liberties.

One of the most important things that we can do now is tell the truth--by putting a human face on the innocent people targeted by Bush's phony war on terrorism and pointing out the real aims of the U.S. government.

This won't be an easy fight. The government has powerful weapons in its arsenal. For instance, Homeland Security tsar Tom Ridge recently told the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) that a work stoppage on the West Coast would be a "national security risk"--and issued a vague threat of sending in troops as scabs. Sadly, the threat had an effect--with ILWU leaders shying away from action because of fears of government intervention.

But history tells us that now isn't the time to hide. HUAC did wreak havoc on people's lives for a period of years. But these goons were eventually sent packing by the growing civil rights movement--and the free speech and antiwar movements that followed.

What the Bush gang gets away with today depends in part on the organizing we do now. We have the power to stop Bush and Ashcroft's crackdown.

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