Average, everyday Americans regularly use the phrase ‘it can’t happen here’ whenever someone suggests our freedom is in peril. The idea of American exceptionalism is proposed as some kind of shield against tyrannical actions by autocrats. We believe we are different and that difference somehow insulates us from thuggish behavior by those in power. We believe we cannot have someone hijack our freedoms and repress our liberty. It has happened in our history though we tend to forget or ignore it. John Adams, our second president, did indeed sign the Alien and Sedition Act which expressly forbid criticizing the government. Jackson laughed at the Supreme Court and refused to execute their order to leave the Cherokee alone to farm and live in peace. FDR appointed ‘dictators’ (his word and not mine) to run various New Deal programs. Nixon had his enemies lists. President Lyndon Baines Johnson certainly marginalized and isolated his political opponents through intimidation and dirty tricks. But, no president has violated civil rights in this nation like our leader during World War I. Woodrow Wilson had a quasi-private army he used during the war to stifle dissent, beat up his enemies, literally and investigate ordinary citizens. Surprised? You probably are because this is the dirty little secret no history book ever tells.
The American Protective League was an organization created by A.M. Briggs, a rich Chicago (no surprise there) businessman to ‘help’ his political cronies. It started in the nineteenth century and grew to encompass 600 cities throughout the United States. Wilson and his Democratic allies, embraced the private organization and used it as an internal spying arm of the then new Bureau of Investigation. (The Bureau of Investigation would eventually become the FBI). It was the central organization of civil investigation in the United States during the war that enlisted thousands of other people in other ‘secret’ organizations to spy on ordinary people. It wasn’t just German spies they sought to find and destroy. It was much more than that.
The APL was charged with the responsibility to find any American who wasn’t contributing to the war effort and direct authorities to them. They “spotted violators of food and gasoline regulations, rounded up draft evaders in New York, disrupted Socialist meetings in Cleveland, broke strikes, and threatened union men with immediate induction in the army.” These private citizens were routinely threatened, beaten, and made to swear oaths to the United States government. The APL wasn’t a good lap dog though. They often went and “investigated fifty cases of mouth-to-mouth propaganda, a notable cause being that of a German Lutheran minister who refused to answer the question as to which side he wished to win the war”. Which sounds suspiciously like the ‘snitch’ email site being touted by the Obama administration through the White House’s website. Such instigation by our public officials to private parties is tantamount to political street warfare.
It is indeed a ‘job’ of our public officials to investigate and prosecute those who work against our country. It is not a ‘job’ of our public officials to engage private citizens to ‘rat out’ possible political dissidence. The two are very different. Yet this administration is dangerously mixing the two as though they were one purpose and goal. For those who argue ‘it could never happen here’ I argue it has and is happening here. We have an administration and government that is engaged in making private organizations and private individuals watchdogs of the public trust. That is dangerous and undemocratic. Democracy demands a free exchange of ideas and thoughts by private citizens. It cannot abide private justice. It needs to have public justice administered openly and freely in the public forum and managed by disinterested third parties.
For the president to ‘call out’ the unions and ACORN and his allies to ‘punch back twice as hard’ is unbelievably undemocratic. It will have a chilling effect on speech and public discourse. It will also make our public institutions suspect to the public at large. If private individuals and groups make other private individuals and groups the target of public displeasure it perverts the entire process rendering it prejudiced and illegitimate. It is no longer ‘our’ government but ‘their’ government in the eyes of the bulk of people. Once this ‘us versus them’ paradigm is realized, it undermines the very fabric of our political life.
It has happened here. We were blessed with the fact a war ended and with that war ending the private political machine died. We are not in a war that can end with this president and his administration. They are making a war not upon a foreign enemy but upon its own people. This regime believes it is just fighting a political battle for a cause, health care reform and environmental reform. Instead, it is fighting a political battle with the American people. It is a dangerous stance and a perilous endeavor. This is not a good thing to happen again.