My Hippie Vietnam War Professor Was Right About the Dangers of the Patriot Act

In the spring following 9/11, the War on Terror had already begun, and I was taking a college course on the Vietnam War.  It was a unique course for the time, as most of us didn’t attend the live class, but students were given a choice to purchase the lectures on DVD or, as I did, go to the library and watch them on VHS. 

It was a great course, but what was most memorable was our Yahoo Groups private message board for the class.  It was here where most of the discourse took place.  This college kids’ message board in the post-9/11 world wasn’t a hippie lovefest, though, as anyone looking at college campuses at most other times in the last sixty years might imagine.  Despite our professor having organized a left-wing curriculum of reading, and despite his having spent a lot of digital ink in his effort,  he failed to convince his students that the cultural touchstones we’d known all our lives, like the existence of POWs in Vietnam after the war or the fact that hippies had ever spit on American soldiers upon returning from war, were just right-wing myths created to smear the anti-war effort. 

He might have gotten away with that today, but we all had fathers and uncles who fought in that war and lived through it, and many of us weren’t convinced by those arguments, or his efforts to paint Communism as more of a benign global phenomenon than the murderous and tyrannical scourge that it is.

But there’s one exchange where my professor was certainly right, and we were wrong.

The topic of the thread was initially the 442nd Nisei regiment in World War II (“Nisei” meaning second-generation to Japanese immigrants, born and educated in America), and this necessarily involved the subject of the wartime internment of Japanese-Americans.  This led, of course, to a discussion about passage of the Patriot Act of 2001, which increased surveillance capabilities and allowed the federal government more sweeping powers to address what were perceived as new threats to national security. 

It boggled my mind when I reached out to my college history department 11 years later and was granted access to that message board for research purposes, that I was so adamantly defending the American tragedy that was Japanese internment during World War II as a necessity, and I was so certain that the federal government needed to have the power to define, surveil, prosecute, or even incarcerate what it deemed to be “terrorists.” 

Yahoo! has shut down its Yahoo Groups platform, and with it went my access to this thread.  But I have a much greater appreciation for my professor today, as he provided this young charge a valuable lesson, even if it’s taken nearly twenty years to fully recognize his meaning. 

I told him something to the effect that the crushing of Japanese-Americans’ civil liberties in World War II was not ideal, certainly, but there was immense fear that Japanese-Americans who were sympathetic to their home country could threaten the war effort, and there was some evidence that they had already contributed to Japanese success in the attack at Pearl Harbor, so internment of an entire class of citizens was a better option than our potentially losing the war and being subjected to “living under the flag of the red sun.” (I remember that I phrased it that way only because he took particular exception to my phrasing of it that way.) 

To his immense credit, he was always respectful in his discussion with us and didn’t punish me for challenging his position.  He simply said what I know now to be obvious.  To paraphrase his response to me, as I remember it: “You agree with the government in power right now about what the government deems to be threats, but what happens when a government comes to power with which you disagree and happens to find you to be a threat?”

That was a ridiculous notion to me at the time, of course.  I was talking about the government having the power to take down Islamic radicals who mean to kill Americans, not to target normal Average Joes like me.    

My hippie professor wasn’t right about a lot of things.  He wasn’t right about his minimizing the threat of Communism at the time, I certainly maintain. 

But time has proven him right about this.  The Patriot Act most certainly came for us, as my professor said it would. 

Currently, the federal government is isolating and targeting very different enemies of the state than it was in 2001, to say the least.  Among these are soccer moms who don’t like their sons being taught that their sex and skin color makes them guilty of some ancestral sin that justifies their having become the victims of perpetual discrimination in applying to college or a job.  They are fathers who don’t like the idea that a 16-year-old boy who is pretending that he’s a girl can share a shower with his 16-year-old daughter after volleyball practice.  They are parents who don’t like that their elementary school children are being told that they may truly be something other than a boy or a girl, or that they should sexually experiment upon themselves. 

They are racial minorities who don’t like that their sons and daughters are being taught that they’re perpetual victims in America, or that phantom impediments to success are oppressing them.  And many among all of those parents take issue with their children being taught that their race is anything more than an immutable trait that is profoundly unimportant relative to kindness, intelligence, work ethic, and what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as “character” when relating his famous dream to the American people.

Today, the federal enforcement mechanisms meant to combat terrorism, including those of the Patriot Act, are being used against all of those Americans with whom a clear majority ideologically and politically agree.   

Attorney General (and thankfully not Supreme Court Justice) Merrick Garland denied it, of course, telling Congress, “I can’t imagine any circumstance in which the patriot act would be used in the circumstances of parents complaining about their children nor can I imagine a circumstance in where they would be labeled as domestic terrorism.” [sic]

However, leaked emails prove that “threat tags” have been created by the department that he oversees to “track school board incidents and the parents themselves.”  Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has issued a statement suggesting that “Biden’s Department of Justice is using FBI criminal and counterterrorism resources to target parents.” 

Senator Josh Hawley asks: “Why is the Patriot Act being used against parents?”  He goes on to say that Garland must, “at the very least,” be called back to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  At best, these revelations signify a profound lack of leadership.  At worst, his previous statements, which these revelations seem to contradict, amount to perjury.

The good news is that history shows that tyranny is much more successful when targeting a minority than a majority, and a Virginia that Joe Biden ostensibly won by 10 points swinging Republican one year later on the strength of backlash to this assault on our children and crackdown on American parents (and contrary to some Republican crowing, it was not a vote against socialism or broad support of Donald Trump that swung that election -- it was concerned Democrat and Independent parents) is a sign that a majority still oppose the racism and nonsense being peddled by the radical progressives of the Democratic Party.

The bad news is that huge masses of college kids will likely continue to be passionately ignorant about the dangers of ceding such power and control to the government until time and experience cure their ignorance.  And, unfortunately, the scope of power over individuals and the economy being sought by this particularly intolerable government, meant to combat the existential threat du jour called climate change, is much broader than anything Americans have ever collectively considered before. 

And perhaps even more unfortunate that, there has never been a more passionate or ignorant rabble than those who support giving seemingly illimitable power to the federal government to combat that particularly amorphous and malleable threat.

Graphic credit: Bryan Jones CC BY-ND ND 2.0 license

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