When I was 10 years old, the Soviet Union was a Big Threat, everyone told us. We were in fifth grade, and we held drills to hide from the possible bombs. All the little children had to go out in the hallway, or hide under their desks, because the terrible nuclear bombs coming from Moscow were going to get us. The USA (USA!, USA!, USA!) was the benevolent protector of all the poverty-stricken third-world countries, and the horrific Soviet Union was after us because they hated goodness.
We learned in elementary school that the horrid Soviet Union had secret spies, the KGB, and they did terrible things like tracking all the citizens. They told the children to “tell” on their parents, the neighbors to “tell” on their neighbors, the co-workers to “tell” on their co-workers. This created a society of distrust, we knew, because even little children are well aware that when Peter tells you about Paul, you learn more about Peter than you do about Paul. “Telling” becomes entwined with jealousy, envy, and all the other things that are human about human beings.
Our generation grew up, and along the way to growing up, we fought in the Vietnam War. This greatly damaged our world-view, and changed our concept of America. Now, we learned, the USA!, USA!, USA! maybe wasn’t sticky-sweet and saturated with goodness. Huh. Big revelation for us. Really, deeply “breaking news.”
So some of us woke up, and agitated for change. No, it isn’t right to have separate bathrooms, water fountains, and seats on the back of the bus for Americans whose skin is darker, and whose ancestors may have come from Africa, we decided. No, newspapers can’t advertise jobs under the headings “Jobs for Females,” and “Jobs for Males.” It isn’t right. It’s not AMERICAN, to do those things. America is the good country. America is better than that. The generation that took to the streets did so out of patriotism, not anarchy.
And then, very strangely, with no warning from our CIA in our newspapers, the Soviet Union fell. It broke apart and disappeared. There was only Russia left. How extremely odd. Such a big threat, such an ominous enemy, such a rallying cry for America to fight off the Reds. And one day it was just gone. Who was going to be our enemy now? How can we rally for USA! USA! USA! if we don’t have an opponent?
Our nation floundered, lost in a sea of disorienting peace. The Cold War was dead. Our enemy evaporated.
What to do, what to do, what to do.
And then, as luck would have it, the Twin Towers collapsed. We took a little while, and then we found a new enemy. This enemy . . . Terror. Terror was going to get us. “They” hate us for our goodness. “They” are not human, because they hate our Freedom. We have to go get them, on their soil, before they come here after us. The Terrorists could be anybody, but probably they are people who don’t look like our stereotypical standard. The more they dress funny, the better. “They” have to be differentiated from “Us,” so we can have an Away Game. So our President of the time started Beating the War Drum. Building the fear. And when we were most afraid, and dead asleep, our nation turned into what we were told as children to fear:
the Soviet Union.
Hey, it was gone, so why not fill the gap? Para-military SWAT teams, dressed in black armor and shields, enter our citizens’ houses in the middle of the night. Huge databases sweep up our phone calls, our e-mail, our credit card transactions. Patterning software runs analyses, looking for “pre-crimes.” And the Department of Homeland Security (isn’t that a spooky name?) starts a campaign to tell us “If you see something, say something,” so we can report our friends and neighbors.
I’m seeing something. I’m seeing our nation act in ways that would make Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin roll in their graves. So I’m saying something. I hope you’ll join me in the discussion. It’s an act of patriotism.