[Mb-civic] Between 'Us' and 'Them, ' Suspicion Poisons the Air LATimes

Michael Butler michael at michaelbutler.com
Thu Sep 9 10:51:03 PDT 2004



Between 'Us' and 'Them,' Suspicion Poisons the Air

A target of the witch hunt of the '40s and '50s detects a similar scent now.
 By Walter Bernstein
 Walter Bernstein is a screenwriter and the author of "Inside Out: A Memoir
of the Blacklist" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).

 September 9, 2004

 The first time the FBI came to see me, it was to ask about a man I'd known
in college who was accused of spying for the Soviet Union. That was in the
late 1940s, when the Russians had already turned, inexplicably to some and
inevitably to others, from allies to enemies.

 The next time, the FBI came asking about me. It was not really a surprise.
I knew I was on at least one list of alleged subversives.

 Agents came frequently after that, usually about once a month, arriving at
my home at different hours of the day. They always came in pairs, a
different set each time, dressed neatly in dark suits and snap brim hats,
looking both oddly alike and mismatched, as though they were unrelated but
from the same orphanage. They would show their badges and ask politely if
they could talk to me. I would answer, equally polite, that I had nothing to
say, and they would leave.

 And now, in investigating antiwar activists, the government is at it again.
The net is spread wide. Before the Republican convention, the FBI visited
presumed protesters all over the country, asking what they intended to do in
New York. The reason was the same as it was half a century ago: to protect
us, to sniff out subversion, prevent terror before it happens. There is no
harm, after all, in asking questions. The purpose is only to gather facts.

 Still, opinions are also noted. Names go on lists. Neighbors and employers
are alerted, and the atmosphere becomes thick with suspicion. People lose
their jobs not because of the actions they perform but the ideas they hold.
It becomes easier to conform. In 1950, the janitor of my building was asked
to note what magazines I received in the mail. A decent man, he was
apologetic when he told me. He felt sullied, caught between his government
and his disgust at becoming a snitch.

 There is nothing new about this. We are a nation with a long and fond
tradition of witch hunting, from the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 through
the Palmer "Red Raids," which began in 1919, and J. Edgar Hoover. Usually it
has required an external enemy, real or imagined. In my day, it was the
menace of communism. The result, for me, was that I was blacklisted, unable
to find work for the next decade. I was not alone, and it was not confined
to the entertainment business. It included doctors, lawyers, teachers,
unionists and anyone linked to left-wing movements.

 Today, of course, the menace is terrorism. And in the name of fighting
terror, we create another kind of terror for ourselves. We have already had
the pronouncement: If you are not with us, you are against us.

 It is not the first time I have been chilled by the threat in those words,
angered by their arrogance and stupidity. No one questions the need to
combat terrorism, to guard against its murderous designs. But we are too
frequently a people ill led and ill informed, and our strength has not saved
us from the damage we inflict on ourselves because of our fears and the
political profit that can be made from them.

 The FBI didn't always come to my house. Sometimes agents would stop me on
the street or getting off a bus or coming up out of the subway or leaving a
theater. Always the same question, always polite, and always leaving me with
what they wanted me to understand, which was that they knew where I was,
what I was doing, who I was with. It went on like that for 10 years. They
have not come visiting me this time, at least not yet. In their eyes, if not
mine, I've passed my radical shelf life. But I remember that knock on my
door, the stopping on the street, the two polite men asking the polite
question. It scared me then. It scares me now.

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