The New McCarthyism

The following article is from the magazine, The Progressive, January 2002. It talks about the increasing attacks on civil liberties in the United States in the wake of the September 11 tragedy.

The New McCarthyism
by Matthew Rothschild
January, 2002

Donna Huanca works as a docent at the Art Car Museum, an avant-garde gallery in Houston. Around 10:30 on the morning of November 7, before she opened the museum, two men wearing suits and carrying leather portfolios came to her door.

"I told them to wait until we opened at 11:00," she recalls. "Then they pulled their badges out."

The two men were Terrence Donahue of the FBI and Steven Smith of the Secret Service.

"They said they had several reports of anti-American activity going on here and wanted to see the exhibit," she says. The museum was running a show called "Secret Wars," which contains many anti-war statements that were commissioned before September 11.

"They just walked in, so I went through with them and gave them a very detailed tour. I asked them if they were familiar with the artists and what the role of art was at a critical time like this," she says. "They were more interested in where the artists were from. They were taking some notes. They were pointing out things that they thought were negative, like a recent painting by Lynn Randolph of the Houston skyline burning, and a devil dancing around, and with George Bush Sr. in the belly of the devil."

There was a surreal moment when they inspected another element of the exhibit. "We had a piece in the middle of the room, a mock surveillance camera pointed to the door of the museum, and they wondered whether they were being recorded," she says.

All in all, they were there for about an hour. "As they were leaving, they asked me where I went to school, and if my parents knew if I worked at a place like this, and who funded us, and how many people came in to see the exhibit," she says. "I was definitely pale. It was scary because I was alone, and they were really big guys."

Before the agents left the museum, Huanca called Tex Kerschen, the curator of the exhibit. "I had just put down a book on COINTELPRO," he says, referring to the FBI's program of infiltrating leftwing groups in the 1960s. "Donna's call confirmed some of my worst suspicions. Donna was frightened, and we're all a little bit shocked that they were going to act against a small art space, to bring to bear that kind of menace, an atmosphere of dread. These old moldy charges of 'anti-American,' 'un-American'--they seem laughable at first, like we can't be accused of anything that silly. But they've started coming down with this."

The director of the Art Car Museum is James Harithas, who served as the director of the Corcoran Art Museum in Washington, D.C., in the late 1960s. "It's unbelievable," he says of the visit from the G-men. "People should be worried that their freedoms are being taken away right and left."

Robert Dogium, a spokesman for the FBI in Houston, says the visit was a routine follow-up on a call "from someone who said there was some material or artwork that was of a threatening nature to the President." He says it was no big thing. "While the work there was not their cup of tea, it was not considered of a threatening nature to anybody or terrorism or anything."

She is a freshman at Durham Tech in North Carolina. Her name is A.J. Brown. She's gotten a scholarship from the ACLU to help her attend college. But that didn't prepare her for the knock on the door that came on October 26. "It was 5:00 on Friday, and I was getting ready for a date," she says. When she heard the knock, she opened the door. Here's her account.

"Hi, we're from the Raleigh branch of the Secret Service," two agents said.

"And they flip out their little ID cards, and I was like, 'What?'

"And they say, 'We're here because we have a report that you have un-American material in your apartment.' And I was like, 'What? No, I don't have anything like that.'

" 'Are you sure? Because we got a report that you've got a poster that's anti-American.'

"And I said no."

They asked if they could come into the apartment. "Do you have a warrant?" Brown asked. "And they said no, they didn't have a warrant, but they wanted to just come in and look around. And I said, 'Sorry, you're not coming in.' "

One of the agents told Brown, "We already know what it is. It's a poster of Bush hanging himself," she recalls. "And I said no, and she was like, 'Well, then, it's a poster with a target on Bush's head,' and I was like, nope."

The poster they seemed interested in was one that depicted Bush holding a rope, with the words: "We Hang on Your Every Word. George Bush, Wanted: 152 Dead." The poster has sketches of people being hanged, and it refers to the number who were put to death in Texas while Bush was governor, she explains.

Ultimately, Brown agreed to open her door so that the agents could see the poster on the wall of her apartment, though she did not let them enter. "They just kept looking at the wall," which contained political posters from the Bush counter-inaugural, a "Free Mumia" poster, a picture of Jesse Jackson, and a Pink Floyd poster with the quotation: "Mother, should I trust the government?"

At one point in the conversation, one of the agents mentioned Brown's mother, saying, "She's in the armed forces, isn't she?" (Her mother, in fact, is in the Army Reserve.)

After they were done inspecting the wall, one of the agents "pulled out his little slip of paper, and he asked me some really stupid questions, like, my name, my Social Security number, my phone number," she says. "Then they asked, 'Do you have any pro-Taliban stuff in your apartment, any posters, any maps?'

"I was like, 'No, I don't, and personally, I think the Taliban is just a bunch of assholes.' "

With that, they left. They had been at her apartment for forty minutes.

"They called me two days later to make sure my information was correct: where I lived, my phone number (hello!), and my nicknames," she says.

Brown says she's "really annoyed" about the Secret Service visit. "Obviously, I'm on some list somewhere."

Welcome to the New McCarthyism. A chill is descending across the country, and it's frostbiting immigrants, students, journalists, academics, and booksellers.

"I'm terrified," says Ellen Schrecker, author of Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Princeton University, 1999). "What concerns me is we're not seeing an enormous outcry against this whole structure of repression that's being rushed into place by the Bush Administration."

"I've been talking a lot about the parallels between what we're going through now and McCarthyism," says Nadine Strossen, president of the ACLU. "The term 'terrorism' is taking on the same kind of characteristics as the term 'communism' did in the 1950s. It stops people in their tracks, and they're willing to give up their freedoms. People are too quickly panicked. They are too willing to give up their rights and to scapegoat people, especially immigrants and people who criticize the war."

Attorney General John Ashcroft is rounding up or interrogating thousands of immigrants in what will go down in history as the Ashcroft Raids. The FBI and Secret Service are harassing artists and activists. Publishers are firing anti-war columnists and cartoonists. University presidents are scolding dissident faculty members. And rightwing citizen's groups are demanding conformity.

In this article, I focus on the threats to free speech, which go well beyond the much-publicized attack on Bill Maher of Politically Incorrect. These threats are real. They are frightening people. They are ruining some livelihoods. And they may be just a taste of sour things to come.

Barbara Wien worked as a program officer and a conflict resolution trainer at the United States Institute of Peace for five years. She doesn't work there anymore.

On September 11, while at an official function of the Institute, Wien spoke out. "I said that I would hope that the United States would not resort to military retaliation and that we need to do a great deal of soul-searching in this country about how U.S. policies might have contributed to the emergence of terrorist policies," she recalls.

Her comments were not well received. "My conservative colleagues became outraged, and said, 'You're the most leftwing person we've ever met, and you should not be leading any trainings here. While the buildings are still smoldering, you're blaming the U.S.' "

This wasn't the first time Wien had raised hackles inside the Institute, which is, according to its web site, "an independent, nonpartisan federal institution created and funded by Congress to strengthen the nation's capacity to promote the peaceful resolution of international conflict." She had clashed with her colleagues before over U.S. policy regarding sanctions on Iraq, Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the Sudan, and the bombing of Belgrade, she says.

"There was generally a hostile work environment for my peaceful activism at the Institute," she says. After her colleagues jumped all over her on September 11, Wien objected. "I went to the management and said a pacifist position here is being punished, and they said, 'It's time for you to go, Barbara. You don't fit into
the culture,' " she recalls. "Then they basically hounded me for about two weeks for my letter of resignation, so I finally caved under duress."

Harriet Hentges is the executive vice president of the United States Institute of Peace. "She submitted a letter of resignation to me October 17, and beyond that I don't have a comment," says Hentges. "But we would never make an individual staff member's personal views a litmus test for employment."

You are no longer free to patronize a bookstore without fear of government scrutiny. On November 1, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) sent a disturbing letter to its members.

"Dear Bookseller," it begins. "Last week, President Bush signed into law an antiterrorism bill that gives the federal government expanded authority to search your business records, including the titles of the books purchased by your customers. . . . There is no opportunity for you or your lawyer to object in court. You cannot object publicly, either. The new law includes a gag order that prevents you from disclosing 'to any person' the fact that you have received an order to produce documents."

The letter recommends that booksellers who get hit with such an order should call their attorney or the foundation, but "because of the gag order . . . you should not tell ABFFE that you have received a court order. . . . You can simply tell us that you need to contact ABFFE's legal counsel."

Marsha Rummel of Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative in Madison, Wisconsin, denounces this new government policy as a "terrifying encroachment on the privacy rights of citizens." Noting that "the danger to booksellers is just one small part of this new landscape," she says, "We must collectively take a stand to defend our democratic rights, including the right to protest our government and oppose the war, and the right to read whatever we like."

Katie Sierra is a fifteen-year-old sophomore at Sissonville High School in West Virginia. On October 22, she notified her principal, Forrest Mann, that she wanted to form an anarchist club. He denied her request. It was the only club he has ever disallowed, according to the lawsuit Sierra and her mother filed against the school.

Sierra had already made up fliers for the club, which she wasn't able to distribute. The fliers said: "Anarchist club. Anarchism preaches to love all humans, not just of one country. Start a newspaper, a food-not-bombs group, a book discussion group. Speak your point of view, and hear others. Please join."

The next day, Sierra came to school with a T-shirt on that said, "Racism, Sexism, Homophobia, I'm So Proud of People in the Land of the So-Called Free." The principal suspended her for three days.

"I've never been in trouble before," Sierra says. "I was kind of upset at first: How could he? Then I was crying. How could he suspend me for something so ridiculous as that?"

On October 29, she was told that before she could come back to school, she would have to provide the principal with authorization to obtain her medical records, she would have to meet with a school psychologist, and she couldn't wear T-shirts like the one she wore or organize her anarchist club.

At a school board meeting on October 29, the school board president, Bill Raglin, said, "What in the hell is wrong with a kid like that?" Another school board member, John Luoni, accused her of treason, according to her court papers.

To make matters worse, says Sierra, Principal Mann mischaracterized her T-shirt in the Charleston Gazette, falsely stating it included statements such as "I hope Afghanistan wins" and "America should burn."

As a result, students at school ganged up on her. "I got shoved against lockers," she says. "People made pictures of me with bullet holes through my head and posted them on, like, the doors in the school. They said some really harsh thi