Beware orders that may lead to policing thought

Jim Redwine

Joe McCarthy (1908-57) was a U.S. senator from Wisconsin. He was also a Wisconsin circuit court judge just before being elected to Congress. He brought no honor to either branch of government.

McCarthy’s favorite tactic of smearing people was to accuse them of being Communist sympathizers by naming his victims, say a political opponent or a college professor or movie actor, and then while holding up a piece of paper saying, “I have here in my hand proof of treasonous activity.”

McCarthy’s “exposés” were often later exposed to have been unfounded allegations. McCarthy was not, but could have been, the role model for “Big Brother” of George Orwell’s English novel "1984" in which the exercise of one’s supposed freedom of speech could result in imprisonment or even death.

In the United States, the bedrock on which our free speech is founded is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble; and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Our Constitution was designed to protect citizens from abuse of power by government. The founders did not fear individual insurrection so much as organized collective tyranny. History teaches that a republican form of democratic government does not rot from the bottom but the top. “Thought Police,” as warned against by such patriots as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, are far more dangerous to democracy than individuals or even small groups coalescing around minority ideologies in upper rooms. Ideas are not the enemy of the people; government suppression of free speech is the enemy.

We should exert strong government effort to prevent harm by those who engage in destructive ACTIONS while espousing odious beliefs. And our current legal system is fully capable of exposing and punishing such behaviors while preventing future crimes. But to punish thoughts, even if expressed through the most vociferous speech, is harmful to all of us.

The cautionary wisdom of our founders’ strong protection of free speech came to mind when I read the Stand-Down Order that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued Feb. 5, 2021. Austin’s new order refers to the previously published Department of Defense Instruction 1325.06 that was originally issued Nov. 27, 2009, and concerned hate speech.

Secretary of Defense Austin almost certainly had good intentions when he, “Directed commanding officers and supervisors at all levels to … conduct a one-day Stand-Down” to address concerns about individuals and groups in the military who might engage in illegal discrimination based on prohibited factors of race, gender, national origin or ethnicity. Austin stated, “We (Austin does not define who “We” is or are) will not tolerate actions that go against the fundamental principles of the oath we share, including actions associated with extremist or dissident ideologies.”

Of course, good intentions are famous as paving material. Carefully and thoroughly thought-out procedures are of more value than good intentions. When Secretary Austin states this Feb. 5, 2021, order, “[I]s just the first initiative … to eliminate the corrosive effects that extremist ideology and conduct have on Department of Defense military and civilian personnel,” safeguards should be put in place to prevent the slippery slope warned of by Benjamin Franklin, who said:

“Those who would give up essential liberty for temporary safety deserve neither.”

Austin does concentrate on “actions” and “behaviors” but when he demands that those in charge of our national defense, “[A]t all levels discuss procedures for reporting suspected (emphasis added) … extremist behaviors”, the “Thought Police” may be encouraged to turn in their fellow soldiers on mere suspicion. It reminds me of a Phil Ochs (1940-76) folk song about the vicissitudes of political opinions:

“Sure, once I was young and impulsive;

I wore every conceivable pin,

Even went to the Socialist meetings,

Learned all the old Union hymns.

Ah, but I’ve grown older and wiser,

And that’s why I’m turning you in.”

-- from "Love Me, I’m A Liberal"

It may be that my personal experience as a teenage member of the United States Air Force affects my reaction to the Standing-Order that sounds like a suggestion for constant, generalized surveillance of everyone by everyone. After all, I remember some crazy things said by young people who had access to cheap beer to drink and nothing to do. How much of those “behaviors” will be anonymously and thoughtlessly slipped into personnel files and maybe one day appear on Twitter to the complete surprise of the named individual?

For it is not true that young service members’ weekend conversations are 100% about sex or sports. Every now and then, such as when the rightness of an on-going war, Vietnam or Iraq for instance, is the topic for discussion, some vociferously patriotic if slightly inebriated soldier might recall his or her high school American History course and shout out about the founding revolutionary insurrectionists, say Patrick Henry (1736-99), whose firebrand speech in 1775 led directly to the “Shot heard ’round the world” about one month later:

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? …. I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Henry’s speech on March 23, 1775, at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, had a distinguished audience that included George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. If the British “Thought Police” had been alerted the whole congregation might have been put on report.

If the Stand-Down Order of Feb. 5, 2021, is very carefully implemented it might not be misunderstood and abused. However, whatever is the current prevailing political ideology often assumes an out-of-control life of its own. Just ask the victims of Joe McCarthy and his Red Scare and the Black List of the 1950s.