History offers lessons for the debate on the Terrorist Expatriation Bill

As a newlywed in 1973, during a pretty deep recession, I got a job as a spray painter at the Raytheon factory in Waltham. At one point during the job-orientation process, the personnel clerk asked me, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of an organization deemed subversive by the Attorney General of the United States?”

I was 19 years old and had not been a member of many organizations up to that point in my life, let alone “subversive” ones, but I decided to ask to see the list to be sure. The clerk looked at me and said, “Just say no,” but I insisted that I wanted to see the list. He disappeared for a while, and came out with a thick document – at least 75 pages, single spaced – filled with the names of thousands of organizations. I was stunned. The clerk said he’d be back in half an hour, and I started reading through the list. I had never heard of most of the organizations. There were scores of World War II-era Japanese and German organizations, and hundreds of Communist Party factions from every country imaginable. There were also groups that I had heard of, like the Angela Davis Defense Committee and various anti-Vietnam War groups. And there was the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was a group of about 450 American volunteers who went to Spain in the 1930s to fight in that country’s civil war – on the side of the democratically elected government, which was being attacked by fascist forces supported by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. In the end, the fascist forces won the war, leading to four decades of repressive rule by the dictator Francisco Franco. It is true that many of the Lincoln Brigade soldiers were socialists, labor union activists, and Communists. But the Lincoln Brigade was also made up of people who saw the dangers of fascism, and young, left-leaning adventurers.
It was supported by such American patriots as Ernest Hemingway and Helen Keller. One of the Lincoln Brigade members, a man named “Jim,” was a former Marine who married into my wife’s family. Following his duty in the Lincoln Brigade, he returned to the South Shore and went to work in the post office.

During the early years of the Cold War, with fear of Communism at a fever pitch, the famous list of organizations “deemed subversive” was created, and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was added to it. As a result, anyone who had been a member and worked for the federal government was fired. “Jim” lost his job with the post office and was never again eligible for work with the government.

The reason I write this is because I read in the Boston Globe that Sen. Scott Brown is co-sponsoring a bill – the Terrorist Expatriation Act – that would strip Americans of citizenship if the government determines that an individual has supported or joined a terrorist group. Undoubtedly, the debate on this bill will center around Al Qaeda, certainly an organization that deserves to be outlawed in the US for its role in 9/11 and other attacks. But my fear is related to the quote from the great Boston philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The creation of laws to curtail constitutional liberties and legal protections in order to prosecute (or, sometimes, persecute) perceived enemies of the country has been filled with the worst aspects of politics throughout our history, from the alien and sedition laws of the early 1800s to the present. It’s so easy to dismiss someone by labeling them, and so at various times in our history we have heard “anarchist!” “communist!” “socialist!” and/or “terrorist” epithets hurled at people to denigrate them and their views. A law such as the “Terrorist Expatriation Act” will allow politicians and/or bureaucrats to silence political enemies, this time by actually taking away their citizenship and legal rights, not just firing them from jobs. And if you don’t think the list of “terrorist” individuals and groups will grow into the thousands, you’re ignoring the history of such efforts.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a main supporter of the bill, was quoted in the Globe as saying, “Our enemies today are even more willing than the Nazis or fascists were to kill innocent civilian Americans here in our homeland.” A long time ago, “Jim” joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to keep the Nazis and fascists from doing just that to Spain, which was the Nazi prelude for what they were willing to do to us and our allies in World War II. Yet a dozen or so years later, he was labeled a subversive and had his job taken away. We should stop and think about “Jim,” and all the people like him in our country’s history, when this bill is debated in Congress.