WASHINGTON (CNN) — In 1950, 12 days after the start of the Korean War, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had a plan “to apprehend and detain persons who are potentially dangerous to the internal security of the country” — thousands of them, almost all American citizens. Hoover submitted the plan to President Harry Truman’s special consultant for military and foreign affairs, Adm. Sidney Souers — who had been the first director of the nascent Central Intelligence Agency in 1946 — and to Souers’ successor as Truman’s top security aide, James Lay. According to the plan, the United States was to round up suspects, detain them at federal prisons or military facilities and eventually allow them a hearing that would not be bound by the rules of evidence.
No student of this period in our nation’s history could reasonably claim to be surprised that J. Edgar Hoover hoped to suspend habeas corpus and round up something like 12,000 Americans deemed “threats” to America, whether by thought, word, or deed.
The early 1950s was a time when the “Red Menace”- the specter of unchecked Soviet Communism- loomed over the free world in a manner to similar to the threat of radical Islamofascism that we live with today. The actual threat posed by each bogeyman remains open to some debate, but there were (and are) those in positions of power absolutely convinced of the immediacy of the threat. In the mind of some authoritarians, the only sensible way to respond to such a threat to the Homeland was to kill the patient in order to save it. It would be easy to draw parallels between then and now, and to do so would hardly be wholly inaccurate. If you believe that past is prologue, as I do, what we see happening today is arguably based on the blueprint set forth by Hoover and his authoritarian absolutism.
Given the tenor of the times, what Hoover was advocating was no real surprise. From someone who viewed the world in stark black-and-white terms, where the world and those in it could only be either one of two things- good or bad- the plans to create what amounted to political concentration camps within our own borders were very much in character.
What saddens me about these revelations is how little we’ve apparently learned from our own history. America came closer to the tyranny of the minority at that time than most historians probably realized. I wonder what will happen when historians look back on the history of this nation post-9.11? Will Our Glorious and Benevolent Leader’s © military tribunals be viewed as the moral equivalent of Hoover’s hearings sans normal rules of evidence? Will extraordinary rendition be viewed as this generation’s equivalent of suspending habeas corpus? And will this Administration’s endorsement and employment of torture despite their denials in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary be held to surpass any evil that Hoover could have possibly conjured?
There’s certainly nothing wrong or inherently evil about combatting a threat to national security. What has always distinguished this nation in the eyes of the world, though, is our ability (if not always our willingness) to do so while respecting the rule of law. We have allowed our leaders to tweak and manipulate our fears so thoroughly and effectively that we’ve lost our collective voice and our willingness to ask difficult questions. It’s easier to obey than to demand to know why our rights and freedoms are being curtailed by those we’ve put into power.
In the final analysis, our current leadership probably has more in common with J. Edgar Hoover than anyone could have imagined, save for the degree of subtlety each brought to the table. Hoover would have been quite happy to bludgeon Americans with his attack on the Bill of Rights. The Worst President EVER © has been significantly more subtle in his approach to curtailing the rights of Americans. In either case, the end result is the same: rights which, once surrendered, are not easily recaptured.
And yet no one seems to be paying attention.