We Will Not Walk In Fear, One Of Another
By John W. Whitehead
"If we confuse dissent with disloyalty-if we deny the right of the individual to be wrong, unpopular, eccentric or unorthodox-if we deny the essence of racial equality then hundreds of millions in Asia and Africa who are shopping about for a new allegiance will conclude that we are concerned to defend a myth and our present privileged status. Every act that denies or limits the freedom of the individual in this country costs us the confidence of men and women who aspire to that freedom and independence of which we speak and for which our ancestors fought." - Edward R. Murrow
We live in perilous times. America's armed forces are spread around the globe. We are embroiled in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq against a rebel enemy that seems to attack from nowhere. Our troops limp home both mentally and physically impaired, finding that their own government in many instances will not care for them. America's credibility around the world is at an all-time low, with the American President being one of the most hated men on the planet.
At home, American borders are sieves, as countless illegal immigrants, and most likely terrorists, flow over like a river. And as the country reels from ravaging natural disasters, a monstrous deficit threatens a national bankruptcy.
As if that were not enough, the Bush Administration post-9/11 advocated, and Congress passed, draconian legislation. Called the USA Patriot Act, this massive law essentially guts the Bill of Rights (and the Bush Administration is attempting to expand the law's reach). American citizens have been detained by the government without being able to talk to an attorney. FBI agents go so far as to question and intimidate even high school students who speak out against the government in class assignments. And the President increasingly calls for unprecedented military intervention in domestic affairs.
We are a culture of fear-a nation divided. Armed to the teeth, Americans, locked in their homes, have come to suspect even their next-door neighbors of being potential terrorists. They turn them in to the police. But is it any wonder? The government's system of alarms and alerts keeps the population in tension, often leading to absurd results. Witness the recent heightened security measures in the New York subway system based on false information.
There is a historical parallel. As fear and paranoia gripped the country during the 1950s, many huddled inside their homes and fallout shelters, awaiting a nuclear war. It was also the time of the Red Scare. The enemy this time was Communist infiltration of American society.
Joseph McCarthy, a young Republican senator, grasped the opportunity to capitalize on the popular paranoia for personal national attention. In a speech in February 1950, McCarthy alleged having a list of over 200 members of the Communist Party "working and shaping the policy of the US State Department." The speech was picked up by the Associated Press, without substantiating the facts, and within a few days the hysteria began.
McCarthy specialized in sensational and unsubstantiated accusations about Communist infiltration of the American government, particularly the State Department. He also targeted well-known Hollywood actors and directors, trade unionists and teachers. Many others were brought before the inquisitional House Committee on Un-American Activities for questioning. Regarded as bad risks, the accused struggled to secure employment. The witch hunt ruined careers, resulting in suicides, and tightened immigration to exclude alleged subversives.
"McCarthyism" eventually smeared all the accused with the same broad brush, whether the evidence was good, bad or nonexistent. McCarthy appealed to the low instincts of envy, paranoia and dislike for the intellectual establishment.
"The real scoundrel in all this," writes author David Halberstam, "was the behavior of the members of the Washington press corps, who, more often than not, knew better. They were delighted to be a part of his traveling road show, chronicling each charge and then moving on to the next town, instead of bothering to stay behind and follow up. They had little interest in reporting how careless McCarthy was or how little it all meant to him."
Moreover, the anti-Communist crusade elicited the involvement and tacit support of various liberal groups and individuals, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which from 1953 to 1959 refused to defend alleged Communists who were under attack or had lost their jobs.
Little substantive commentary was coming from the news media. No one with any power was willing to take on the popular McCarthy-much like the lack of head-on commentary from today's major network mouthpieces concerning possible government corruption in high places.
However, on March 9, 1954, Edward R. Murrow, the most-respected newsman on television at the time, broke the ice. He attacked McCarthy on his weekly show, See It Now. Murrow interspersed his own comments and clarifications into a damaging series of film clips from McCarthy's speeches. Murrow ended the broadcast with one of the greatest news commentaries of all time, also a warning.
"We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine; and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.
"This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it-and rather successfully. Cassius was right. 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.' Good night, and good luck."
Of the 12,000 telephone calls received within 24 hours of the broadcast, CBS reported that positive responses to the program outnumbered negative ones 15 to 1. And McCarthy's favorable rating in the Gallup Poll dropped from 50% to 46%, never to rise again. Before 1954 ended, McCarthy's political career was finished.
Murrow, immortalized in the excellent new film Good Night, and Good Luck, had guts-something lacking in most of today's television commentators who are more adept at reading teleprompters than tackling issues-and he spoke truth to power. Indeed, Murrow's hard-hitting approach to the news cost him, and cost him dearly. See It Now occasionally scored high ratings (usually when it concerned controversial subjects). However, in general, it did not score well on primetime television. When the quiz show phenomenon began, entertainment more and more became the focus of television. The conscious decision of executives to exchange knowledge for entertainment bewildered Murrow. As he remarked, the television industry "seems determined to destroy itself."
See It Now was canceled in 1958. CBS founder William S. Paley complained that the program "gave me a stomachache." From there, Murrow produced a series of occasional television special reports that defined documentary news coverage. But Murrow's reporting brought him into repeated conflicts with CBS heads and Paley. And after his last documentary, "Harvest of Shame," which was a report on the plight of migrant farm workers in the US, Murrow resigned from CBS.
A heavy smoker all his life, Murrow developed lung cancer and died at his home in 1965. But his timely warnings still present a challenge to us today. As Murrow said to his staff before the historic March 9 broadcast: "No one can terrorize a whole nation, unless we are all his accomplices." Is America listening?
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute and author of the award-winning Grasping for the Wind. He can be contacted at [email protected] Information about the Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.
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