McCarthyism and the Red Scare are widely acknowledged to mark one of the darkest chapters in our nation's political history. The fear-mongering, accusation-flinging, and subsequent persecution of public figures deemed 'unpatriotic' was an assault on civil liberties that left a deep scar across our popular culture. It's now regarded as a lesson in the perils of succumbing to demagoguery.
But it's also now considered far-off; an episode that shook America when everyone was more naive and susceptible that the citizens of today's plugged-in, globalized world. Unfortunately, that's not quite the case.
A less-remembered byproduct of McCarthyism (the Crucible seems more durably engrossing) was the actual laws created to allow for the prosecution--and even execution--of anyone involved in un-American activities. And Will Potter, an investigative journalist who has been plumbing this history for a decade now, notes that many of those very laws have been more or less updated to suit the modern age, replacing the 'terrorist' in their language for 'subversive' or 'Un-American'. And since terrorism is the hot-button issue of the day, couching your accusations of a specific person or activity in such terminology will inevitably inflame passions; just like calling someone a 'communist' would decades ago.
These laws, and public fear, are increasingly allowing radical environmentalists and animal rights activists to be labeled--and prosecuted--as "terrorists" even if they've never injured or threatened to injure another person. The result, Potter argues, is "a chilling effect" that discourages the public from taking up their First Amendment rights.
Last Wednesday, I attended a panel discussion put on by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which featured Potter, as well as Robert Meeropol, the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and Jenny Synan, the wife of convicted 'eco-terrorist' Daniel McGowan.
Potter is the author of Green is the New Red, a blog (and book of the same name) that examines how the legal tactics employed during the McCarthy era to marginalize political opponents (or worse) have been adopted again. But this time, he explains, the charge is being led by corporations who view environmentalists and animal rights activists a threat to their bottom lines. And in the modern era, in which corporations have unprecedented influence on policy (and often, the opportunity to help draft it directly--ALEC, anyone?), we're beginning to see more and more severe punishments handed down to activists who did no harm to people at all.
This is the result, Potter says, of a concerted effort stemming back to the 1980s, when a think tank came up with the tag 'eco-terrorists'. Since then, corporations have been leaning on the government to punish activists who target them more harshly, in an effort both to deter further activism and to relegate the entire movements to the fringe in the public eye. Conservative politicians have been happy to comply, and have helped cast these environmental activists as domestic terrorists.
And that's why, so often today, the #1 most wanted domestic terrorists are environmental activists. Some have done little more than cause property damage, others, the very worst, committed arson. Not a single one has caused any harm to a human being. And since they're considered terrorists by the state (even if they're not convicted of terrorist crimes), prosecutors may argue for 'terrorist enhancement', which can tack years onto a sentence This trend is also why Tim DeChristopher, in disrupting a land auction with an entirely nonviolent act of civil disobedience, received a staggering two-year prison sentence.
The greater concern here, Meeropol and Potter argued, was that this sort of heavy-handed action will bring about a wider-spread "chilling effect", and the public will be made afraid to protest, even peaceably, the injustices that effect their daily lives. We're already aware that the era of corporate-influenced governance has brought about a rather perverse emphasis on protecting property over people--witness the militarized police forces bearing down on any given cadre of unarmed Occupy Wall Street protesters for evidence of that compulsion. And we also know that peaceful public protest is essential to a robust democracy--so I would agree that there's good reason to be deeply concerned.
There's a healthy philosophical debate to be had over how far activism should go, and I do not condone the tactics of those who break into labs or induce property damage to battle animal testing or corporate pollution. But it should be plain to see that these are not terrorist acts. These people are not 'eco-terrorists'. But by allowing them to continue to be labeled and prosecuted as such, Potter says, we are allowing the corporations to marginalize the very issues they are fighting against.