WHEN AMERICA entered World War I in 1917, German-Americans were hounded and sometimes beaten as the country succumbed to an anti-German hysteria that would have been unthinkable only a few months before.
When World War II came along, even such a towering liberal as Franklin Roosevelt sent innocent Japanese-Americans into concentration camps, and the Supreme Court approved it.
When the Cold War was at its height, the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy ranted, raved, and ruined many a career in the name of anticommunism in an era that Lillian Hellman called "scoundrel time."
During the Cold War the United States took actions overseas, such as the CIA coup that overthrew an Iranian leader, Mohammed Mossedegh, who was not anti-American, for no other reason than that if he failed the communists might fill the vacuum. We bombed Guatemala City and forced a leftist government out because of fear of communism, and years later we organized the overthrow of the Chilean government because we thought it might invite in the Reds. Then there was the Bay of Pigs. We also overlooked the most appalling faults in foreign leaders as long as they were in our camp, stunting the growth of democracy in many parts of the world.
Looking back, we shake our heads and ask, how could it have happened? How could we have allowed these wrongs to have been carried out in our name?
Nowadays, these nightmares from the past seem as stupid and wrong as the Salem witch trials in 1620, when one Massachusetts community succumbed to fear and hysteria and sentenced 19 people to be hanged for witchcraft and a 20th to be pressed to death by heavy rocks.
That could never happen today, you say. Modern people are not susceptible to the same irrational fears and superstitions that haunted men and women in the 17th century.
Yet only a little more than two years ago no one would have believed that people could be told to get up from airplane seats they had paid for and leave the aircraft for no other reason than someone on the flight felt uncomfortable having them aboard, usually because of a swarthy complexion.
Devil's Island, the former French penal colony in the Caribbean where prisoners were once stashed away forever, is a tourist attraction today. No one visiting those grim, now-empty cells before 9/11 would have believed that the United States of America would one day found its own Devil's Island, Guantanamo, in which prisoners would languish without trial for nobody knows how long. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said that they might stay there for the duration of the war on terrorism, which will probably last a couple of generations at the least. This would mean that they will be incarcerated for life without benefit of trial, if Rumsfeld gets his way. Even the miserables of Devil's Island had a trial.
Recently, Christopher Girod, the senior representative of the International Red Cross in Washington, visited Guantanamo and denounced the situation as unacceptable, which it is. He did not complain about the prisoners' living conditions, which are certainly better than anything Devil's Island ever saw, but he said that "one cannot keep these detainees in this pattern indefinitely," which is exactly what is happening.
"Unfortunately, Guantanamo became a rallying point for anti-Americanism," writes James Rubin, an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration. "The fact that the United States would not even accept the Geneva Convention in this case . . . showed that the Bush administration really did see itself as above the law of nations," he recently wrote in Foreign Affairs.
Ironically, the United States came around to treating prisoners in a manner close to what the Geneva Convention requires, but Rumsfeld's statement that he had not "the slightest concern" about how prisoners would be treated is what everyone overseas remembers.
And in the homeland itself Attorney General John Ashcroft seems bent on closing down civil liberties on a broad spectrum, and seems obsessed with putting people to death. Arab-Americans are fearful despite the laudable efforts of President Bush to assure them that our war is not against Islam. But in practice it can look quite different if you are an American Muslim.
Yes, of course 9/11 changed America's sense of security. It was only sensible that the government look more closely at who was coming into this country and why. And most Americans might be willing to give up a bit of privacy for their safety, just as most Americans don't mind going through the bore of increased airport security.
But there are indications that the United States is yielding to the fear of terrorism as it once did with communism and making huge mistakes that we will look back on one day with head-shaking amazement. Fear is a powerful motivator for repressive and cruel behavior. Let this not be this generation's "scoundrel time."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.