SINCE 1759

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To the Fearful Station
From Red Scares to Dust Mites

The good old days. "The Red Menace" was a 1949 flick starring Robert Rockwell about a GI who falls in love with a Communist and discovers the errors of his ways.

I had no idea that the Communist Party USA was still Lennining on. I had no idea that I walked by its headquarters on West 23 rd Street in Manhattan for years in the 1980s, when Moscow was the capital of the “evil empire” and Ronald Reagan daydreamed of bombing it. My high school was at the far end of East 23 rd, my job in college, in a seedy check-cashing chain that could have made a Marxist of Milton Friedman, had its main storefront a few numbers down from 235 West 23 rd, home to “CPUSA.” I’m sure the millions of New Yorkers and tourists who walk by there never noticed, either.

Imagine, 50 years from now, walking down the street of a major American city and looking at the line-up of companies in the lobby of a high-rise. There, on the same floor as a geriatric pet counselor and a company specializing in diving tours of the former Florida, an office for “al-Qaida USA.” It sounds outlandish only to the extent that we have bought into the greatest lie of the Bush-terror era: That al-Qaida is equally or more dangerous to the existence of the United States than communism was.

Of course it isn’t. Al-Qaida’s terrorism was once spectacularly deadly and may be again. It may even devastate an entire city with a suitcase bomb. But it won’t ever be a danger to the political system, to the Constitution, to the nation’s way of life (as the Soviet Union’s 10,000 nuclear warheads pointed this way once were), anymore than Hurricane Katrina was even as it destroyed New Orleans. In the face of terrorism, only Americans can damage the political system, as they have ably done following Bush’s lead. Without his founding lie about the threat posed by al-Qaida, Bush never could have pulled off his agenda of neo-imperialism at home and abroad.

The irony of an al-Qaida office in a high rise 50 years from now would be lost on future generations. The irony of a communist party headquarter eliciting less than recognition in the heart of the greatest city in the country, even during the anxious early 80s, shouldn’t so easily be lost: How can mortal enemies go from existential threats to the nation, as the 1950s and 60s version of communism had it, to tourist curiosities or less a couple of decades later?

The premise of the Red Scare was that communists were infiltrating the countries’ institutions — government, media, schools, Hollywood — to destroy the country from within. One odious example of the era was the 1950 McCarran Act, the USA Patriot Act of its day. Harry Truman vetoed it and called it “the greatest danger to freedom of speech, press, and assembly since the Alien and Sedition Laws of 1798.” A Democratic Congress overrode the veto and used the law to create the Subversive Activities Control Board. Organizations and individuals the board identified as subversives had to register with the government. Those individuals were then denied the right to travel abroad or the right to work in some industries.

Communist Party USA refused to register and sued, a case that lasted 11 years until the Supreme Court in 1961 infamously ruled 5-4 in favor of the registration provision. The decision was overturned just four years later, when Chief Justice Earl Warren’s Supreme Court systematically demolished the follies of a police-state mentality pervading domestic law enforcement. So it goes when thuggery is legitimized at the top. It doesn’t take long for the notion of control as an end in itself to trickle down and affect authority at every level, including local police, school rules, workplace codes of conduct. The 1950s wasn’t the decade of the “organization man” for nothing. The present decade owes its codes to the 1950s, down to a Supreme Court retracing its steps to leap back from the sobriety of the Warren Court.

There’ll probably never be an al-Qaida office in Manhattan, although it never hurts to have one’s enemies nearby for the kind of backroom chatter that helps diffuse wars. Soviet and American ambassadors were never once recalled by their governments throughout the cold war, which helped keep it from getting hot. Nor, obviously, did all those communist infiltrators manage to dent the nation’s freedoms nearly as much as their McCarthyist Ahabs. Last month, Communist Party USA donated thousands of boxes filled with once-“subversive” documents to New York University. What was once grist for hysteria and every intelligence agency’s obsessions is now food for outmoded scholars and dust mites. The nation survived the hysterics after all. We should be so lucky when al-Qaida proves even less worthy of dust mites.

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