Robert Meeropol





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STILL OUT ON A LIMB

Could it Happen to You?

December 5, 2015

Tags: Secret US detention, WWI repression

Elli and I are speaking at an Amnesty International Human Rights Day program in Amherst this afternoon. Our talk is entitled, “Disappeared in American: Secret Detention and Interrogation in Fiction and Fact.”

First, Elli will read from her novel, ON HURRICANE ISLAND. It is the story of a 60-year-old math professor who is whisked away by the TSA at JFK airport to a secret detention center for interrogation. In the words of the Center for Constitutional Rights’ Michael Ratner, “On Hurricane Island is a chilling, Kafkaesque story about what happens when the United States does to citizens at home what it has done to others abroad.”

By the time Elli is finished, I expect many in the audience will be wondering if such secret centers actually exist in our country. I will attempt to answer that question by looking at the last 100 years of U.S. history.

Our entry into World War I provided the watershed for repressive governmental laws and institutions. Woodrow Wilson’s successful re-election campaign slogan was, “he kept us out of war,” but within a year he had to whip up support for the war effort from a reluctant public and silence contrary voices. His administration helped establish the American Protective League, a public-private partnership that at its height boasted 250,000 members in 600 cities. Its members acted as a vigilante auxiliary security force – rounding up, detaining, and beating subversives, dissenters and draft dodgers. Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917, which, among other things, criminalized anti-war speech. Remarkably, imprisoned anti-war socialist Eugene Debs ran for President in 1920 and garnered a million votes.

This repressive atmosphere led to the Palmer Raids of 1919. In response to an anarchist bombing campaign, Attorney General Palmer’s minions rounded up, detained, brutalized and summarily deported over a thousand foreign-born anarchists and communists, the most famous of whom was Emma Goldman.

These actions apparently had the support of a majority of Americans. The politicians, the newspapers, and the radio news (TV didn’t exist yet) warned that foreigners and radicals would steal their property, impose tyranny and destroy their way of life. In this crisis, the authorities claimed that national security and the strict implementation of draconian laws were necessary. Human rights, civil liberties and the constitution could not be allowed to stand in the way. The government, media, powerful corporations, and local small business interests combined with conservative religious institutions and xenophobic whites to promote this authoritarian ideology. To a large degree, it worked.

In the ensuing decades, these same forces combined to bring us the Japanese Internment, summary mass deportation of migrant workers in the 1950’s, the McCarthy era Red Scare, the USA PATRIOT act, post 9/11 round-ups of Muslims, mass detention of the undocumented, as well as Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and the rest of those dangerous clowns.

Today, if the government designates you a terrorist, or an enemy combatant; can you be disappeared and detained indefinitely? The courts have yet to decide this issue, but in the 14 years since 9/11, they haven’t ruled that the government can’t.

I don’t know if what happened to Elli’s protagonist could happen to any of us, but I wouldn’t bet against it. We don’t have the American Protective League any more, but every night on TV tens of millions watch heroic federal agents save us from terrorists while shredding the constitution. While many courageous people would protest against such governmental overreach, the majority would not. Although Elli’s book is fiction, it is also frighteningly real.

Selected Works

Memoir
"Bravery is rare. Tyranny is commonplace. Both define the life of Robert Meeropol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In his heart-wrenching, honest memoir, Meeropol recounts the emotional terrors of his childhood, the kindness of Abel and Anne Meeropol-who adopted him and his older brother after their parents' execution-his struggle to vindicate his parents, and his own political activism, culminating in the creation of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which he now directs."
Publisher's Weekly
"one of those rare books everyone should read"
–Joyce Carol Oates

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