Over the last four years, the FBI has repeatedly spied on the Thomas Merton Center, a Catholic peace organization in Pittsburgh. The American Civil Liberties Union made the case public last week, with documentation. One 2002 FBI memo defined the center as ''a left-wing organization advocating, among many political causes, pacifism." Oh my. I confess that I felt a little light-headed on reading this news; déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say.
The Thomas Merton Center, named for the great Trappist monk, was an antiwar beacon of hope beginning in the early 1970s, and it was a target of FBI harassment even then. Unlike most Vietnam-era peace organizations, the center is still going strong. Hanging on my wall is a citation I received from the center in 1972, and last week's news makes me prouder of it than ever.
The founding director of the Merton Center is Larry Kessler, who, after moving to Boston, became founding director of the AIDS Action Committee 23 years ago. Having led AIDS Action to its position of national prominence as an exemplary AIDS advocacy and service organization, Kessler is retiring next month, to, as he put it, ''get back to my roots and work on the social justice issues that continue to drive this epidemic: poverty, violence, racism, and homophobia."
It is as if, in carrying out fresh surveillance of the antiwar organization Kessler started more than 30 years ago, the FBI is paying tribute to the staying power of this compassionate prophet of justice and peace.
That's one part of the story. Another part is implied in the FBI memo, which breathlessly singles out pacifism as a ''political cause" of concern. What drew the bureau's attention to the Merton Center in 2002 was its members' handing out leaflets that opposed the impending war in Iraq.
Of course, one needn't have been a pacifist to have seen the folly, and immorality, of the impending ''shock and awe" campaign. Still, what made the Merton Center leafleting an un-American activity requiring FBI monitoring, despite its certain legality, was the blatant rejection of the government's hair-trigger presumption in favor of war as the way to resolve international conflict.
Never mind that the instincts on display at the Merton Center just then proved far more reasonable -- and realistic -- than those that drove the United States into the abyss of the present situation in Iraq.
As if to join the FBI in its alarm about pacifism, the Bush administration last week reiterated its supreme reliance on force as defining America's main mode of being in the world. In 2002, the so-called National Security Strategy first articulated the Bush doctrine of preventive war, and now an update has been issued. The new statement repeats the assertion of a unilateral right of ''anticipatory action to defend ourselves."
The preventive war doctrine was a true innovation in American foreign policy, yet now it is referred to as if an established tradition. What were abstract questions about the doctrine's wisdom and even legality in 2002 have become, through blood in the streets of cities across the Mideast, hard lessons that Washington has yet to learn.
Today, Iran occupies the center of preoccupation, with a threat of a coming ''confrontation," but the new document's ominous tone extends to Syria, China, and Russia. Lip service is paid to diplomacy, but the threat of war is the main note being struck here. In Iraq especially, the world sees where such bluster leads.
But in this time of shameless political pliancy, perhaps the FBI is right to treat as subversive those who question the Bush premise. And in getting caught in shadows of the Merton Center again, perhaps the FBI is accidentally serving a useful purpose.
To a government enthralled with the power of violent force, any dissent can seem like pacifism, but when the word is slung to discredit reasoned objections as wild-eyed idealism that would leave terrorists unchecked, it does not stick.
In the distant past, groups had to be associated with communism to become targets of the national security apparatus, but in the Vietnam era it became enough merely to ask questions about an obviously immoral war. Déjà vu indeed.
The FBI is once more serving an invaluable function with its inept display of the shallow paranoia that sees enemies everywhere, a clear manifestation of the mental unbalance driving the entire enterprise of the United States government.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© 2006 The Boston Globe