A little history lesson for those who are capable of learning from history: During the Red Scare days of the mid-20th century, the land was full of fear-mongers, selling their poison to all who would listen, pointing to communists in high places and low, branding as “un-American” anyone who would challenge the conservative orthodoxy of the day.
The essence of the tactic was to link any feared group or individual to communist subversion. It was not necessary to prove communist subversion or to prove a link. Just having it spoken by the likes of Sens. Joe McCarthy or Strom Thurmond was enough to make the fearful and the weak-minded surrender all judgment.
At its most absurd, it was possible to find demagogues accusing everyone from the mafia to the civil rights movement of taking orders from the Kremlin. These were the kind of charges that would not hold up under a minute of critical analysis, but there they were on the pages of our newspapers and on the public airways. And critical analysis was in short supply.
With this background firmly in mind, an article in the Feb. 8 Post and Courier should make us all tremble.
It seems that some state Republican leaders, including First District Rep. Henry Brown, are convinced that international terrorists and street gangs might be in collusion to wreak some mighty evil on our nation. They say the best way to thwart these evil-doers is to create a special police/military force. They want to place the pilot program right here in South Carolina and put it under the auspices of the National Guard.
According to the P&C, Brown and Second District Rep. Joe Wilson have asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to back the creation of a military unit to bridge a “perceived security gap between the international drug trade and the war on terror.”
The federally funded pilot program has already been created. “The pilot program would target this stealthy world of drugs and money,” according to the P&C story. “The new unit is shrouded in secrecy, with scant details of its origin, funding, or status.”
Known as the S.C. Counter Narco-Terrorism Pilot Program, the project calls for an as-yet-undefined partnership between the National Guard and the State Law Enforcement Division.
According to Joel Sawyer, press secretary for Gov. Mark Sanford, the governor said the program was “an intriguing idea.”
If the program succeeds, proponents say it could serve as a national model for battling terrorism and the drug trade on America’s streets. Nobody defined what constituted success or what would become of the pilot program if it did not succeed.
In writing the story, reporters Ron Menchaca, Glenn Smith, and Tony Barthelme maintained a healthy skepticism.
They wrote: “But questions remain. Among them: How strong is the evidence linking terrorists, gangs, and drug traffickers? How would this new program square with existing federal, state and local drug enforcement efforts? And is South Carolina the best place for this mission?”
Is it, indeed? That last question should keep every freedom-loving South Carolinian awake at night.
It’s important to understand that civil liberties have historically been an alien concept in this state. In antebellum days, local authorities would open the U.S. Mail without warrant to search for abolitionist material. If any such material was found, it would be publicly burned. Every street and road in the Lowcountry was watched by slave patrols. Any slave or suspicious-looking white could be stopped, questioned, and apprehended with no due process. Anyone advocating abolition could be fined, whipped, jailed, or banished. To return to the state after banishment meant execution without benefit of clergy.
Things improved only marginally in the 20th century. The law rarely bothered to protect blacks from lynch mobs and was, in fact, often complicit in regards to public lynchings. Until the 1960s, black public employees — including many teachers — were routinely fired for belonging to the NAACP.
The idea of having this new police/military unit “shrouded in secrecy, with scant details of its origin, funding or status” operating on South Carolina soil, under the command of South Carolina politicians, police, and military, is scary as hell.
Even in the 21st century, most of the people in this state still live in fear and vote in fear. They have been surrendering their freedom and their judgment to demagogues for generations. And, of course, in South Carolina the past is never really past.
Civil libertarians have been warning for decades that the “war on drugs” is the slippery slope to a police state. With its tradition of government secrecy and authoritarianism, South Carolina would be a perfect incubator for that nightmare.