What government can do to you: our government has steadily, and increasingly openly, treated Americans as dispensable assets--to be used or discarded at will.
Then I ran into the issue of prisoners of war and a fellow named Maj. Wirt Elizabeth Thompson, an eye-opener incomparable to anything I had written about before, including the scam of federal deposit insurance, the monkeyshines at the World Bank, and other unconstitutional and unaccountable quasi-federal agencies.
The POW story was instructive on several levels, not least of which was that even democratic governments are capable of doing just about anything. Not that this story is the only one illustrating that truth. The 20th century is replete with examples that prove precisely this point, and now, going into the 21st, we have more.
The Thompson Story
Thompson's story illustrates the point. Wirt Elizabeth Thompson, a dashing pilot born in Italy, Texas, who attended high school in San Antonio, went down in Burma in 1944. A letter to Thompson's father said the pilot went down on a combat mission to Kunming, China. The Army told the family, his sister said, that he was escaping a Japanese attack at Myitkyina, and his plane, overloaded with other GIs, crash-landed. Either way, Wirt Thompson was gone. The Army told Thompson's family that it dispatched three search parties but that none could reach the crash site.
Unsurprisingly, the Thompson family psychologically buried Wirt, and like millions of others, moved on. Wirt Thompson was presumed dead. But the family never learned something the government eventually learned.
In 1954, a German civilian released from the Soviet gulag told American authorities about meeting an American pilot named "William Thompson," who had been sentenced to 25 years in prison for espionage. The man he described fit the description of Wirt Thompson. The German, government documents show, knew that Thompson had lived in San Antonio, among other particulars about his life in America, and that he had made a forced landing.
Upon examining the German man's story, the government concluded that he must have encountered Wirt Thompson in order to know these things. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles cabled the American embassy in Moscow about Thompson: the government asked the Soviets to return him. It never happened, and his family never knew about it until, nearly 50 years later, I called Thompson's sister in Texas and daughter in Oklahoma. Unsurprisingly, hearing this news shocked them, and I wager the government documents I mailed to the daughter shocked her even more.
Thompson's fate remains unknown, a fate similar to that of thousands of other fighting men the government left behind. Government archives, I discovered, were packed with lengthy reports not only about Thompson, seen alive in a Soviet prison as long as 10 years after the war, but about hundreds of other Americans in communist captivity. They landed there after WWII and during the Korean War. During the Cold War, communist agents kidnapped Americans off the streets of Berlin. They were shot down and captured on peacetime spy missions. As well, the Soviets took prisoners during the Vietnam War. Mourning families knew nothing about their fates.
Thompson's story in particular, and the POW story in general, proved to me that even the U.S. government is capable of any perfidy, any deed, to enhance its power over its citizens. I learned when I met Wirt Thompson from afar--and recent events have confirmed--that our government will lie, cheat, steal, spy, and, in some cases, murder not only foreigners but also American citizens.
Given the government's history of nefarious activities during the 20th century, claiming government worsened isn't plausible. But neither is it improving. It still seeks plenary powers to do what it wants, when it wants, anywhere it wants. It seeks the kind of power over all of us that it has over the soldiers in its armed forces, the power to decide whether it will protect its men or leave them to die, or tell a family important details about the status of a missing loved one.
And now, like then, it uses "national security" as its reason.
An example of the reach government hopes to attain in the name of national security surfaced briefly in the news in May, when U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales met with Internet service providers to persuade them to collate and store information about your transactions on the World Wide Web for at least two years. The purpose of gathering these data, he said, was to combat child pornography, and unlike the hysterics. What a surprise.
The move against Internet users prompted one observer to ask why the Bush administration wants to accumulate more information about American citizens than the communist Chinese government accumulates about its subjects. Most Americans don't know it, but the law already requires Internet service providers to keep information for at least 90 days if the government so requests. But Gonzales wants to augment the power of the federal cyberpolice. Backing him up are two proposals before Congress, one Republican, one Democrat, requiring providers to permanently retain information about customers.
Oddly, this suggestion to rifle the cyberdrawers of law-abiding citizens didn't provoke much controversy compared to that inspired by the NSA's program to vacuum information, also in name of fighting terror, from telephone calls, domestic and international. And in late June, the New York Times, which disclosed the NSA phone-call sweep, also disclosed the government's surveillance of international bank transactions.
To be blunt, most Americans needn't fear these programs, and many dangerous people in America do merit close scrutiny. Sex criminals using the Internet are legion. On June 23, the FBI nailed a cell of Muslim terrorists in Florida who were accused of planning to attack the Sears Tower in Chicago. And the surreptitious movement of money across the world did help accomplish the terrorist attacks on America on 9/11. Still, the question is what these programs mean as a matter of principle. Answer: as the warfare state metastasizes, its bureaucrats will continue to accumulate more power to monitor, control, and restrict the activities of law-abiding citizens. Even worse, however, it means that government, which now arrogates the power to torture prisoners of war in foreign countries and harass and shoot law-abiding Americans, will catch increasing numbers of innocent people in its intelligence nets.
What may happen to the captured innocents? At Abu Ghraib, the infamous prison in Iraq, decency was shown the door. Basic morality was tossed out. And the law? Look in the trash can. At that notorious prison, again in the name of gathering intelligence for the "war on terror," American guards subjected prisoners to stupefying cruelty. Prisoners were tortured sexually, forced to masturbate publicly, attacked with vicious dogs--the list is lengthy. The pictures went worldwide in newspapers and on the Internet, and any American who saw them would never concede that the Americans conducting these torture sessions were acting either humanely or within the law or as representatives of the American people.
Most Americans react to these outrages by saying they will be exempt from them. We are, after all, citizens, not terrorists. Yet with little fanfare, illegitimate governmental detentions, harassment, and even killing have begun. In 2002, the late governor of South Dakota, Joe Foss, who received the Medal of Honor for his aerial heroics over Guadalcanal in 1942, was stopped at an airport checkpoint and thrice forced to remove his boots, belt, hat, and tie. The airport gumshoes tried to confiscate his Medal of Honor. Ironically, he was en route to address the cadets at West Point. Such is the climate the federal government has created with its war on terror. But Foss was lucky. He escaped unharmed.
Rigoberto Alpizar, a Christian missionary, wasn't and didn't. Just last year, air marshals gunned down the 44-year-old at Miami International Airport. The marshals, cleared of wrongdoing in May, shot Alpizar because he suffered a conniption fit linked to his bipolar disorder. According to the government's report on the incident, marshals and some passengers claimed that when he tried to depart the plane, Alpizar shouted that he had a bomb while his wife was shouting that he was ill. The marshals ventilated him with 11 slugs. News service reports contradict the official one, saying that no passengers can be located who heard Alpizar say the word "bomb." Alpizar, who had just returned from Quito, Ecuador, hadn't taken his Lithium. Tough luck for him.
Whereas the shooting of Alpizar is an extreme example, petty harassment is common. Elderly ladies shed shoes and dump purses at airports, while swarthy young Arabs mosey onto jets. Point is, the Bush administration has conferred carte-blanche permission for the security and intelligence apparatus to do whatever it wants to fight "the war on terror." About the only verboten activity is "racial profiling," which is why the beefy agents of the TSA blithely harass heroes such as Joe Foss and little old white ladies.
A History of Abuse
These abuses, again, are nothing new. A secret program in the 1950s, administered by the CIA, empowered federal doctors to administer LSD to unsuspecting test subjects. One of them, Dr. Frank Olson, threw himself out of a window in New York City in 1953. Some observers, not least a forensic scientist who examined Olson's body after his son exhumed it, believe Olson was brained unconscious and then tossed out the window. Whatever the truth, the program called MK/ULTRA most certainly was an appalling abuse of government power.
What gave American government bureaucrats the idea they could dispense dangerous drugs without telling someone isn't hard to fathom. Bureaucrats became emboldened by the impunity shown by previous politicians who committed abuses, especially during wartime.
It is now fairly common knowledge that the FDR administration withheld vital intelligence that could have prepared the American armed forces at Pearl Harbor for the coming Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. That decision was a death warrant for nearly 3,000 Americans.
President Abraham Lincoln shut down newspapers and arrested editors, while Secretary of State William Seward operated a secret police force and claimed he could have anyone arrested anywhere simply by ringing a bell.
What Lesson Learned?
Imagine that. In the land of the free, during the war to preserve a government "of the people, by the people and for the people," an unelected bureaucrat boasted of his power to arrest anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Perhaps the lesson to learn from these examples is that the U.S. government is nearly beyond accountability, which invites the question of what Americans ought to do about it. Simple voting for the "right" representative won't solve the problem. Until Americans fully understand that government is a dangerous force to be restrained, not further empowered, the political and financial elites who run it won't discontinue the predatory activities that gradually diminish our liberties. And that understanding, in turn, demands reacquiring and maintaining the plebeian vigilance that Americans of yore knew was the cornerstone of justly governed republic.
R. Cort Kirkwood is managing editor of the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is the author of Real Men: Ten Courageous Americans to Know and Admire, to be published by Cumberland House on September 1.
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|Author:||Kirkwood, R. Cort|
|Publication:||The New American|
|Article Type:||Viewpoint essay|
|Date:||Jul 24, 2006|
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