Between ‘Us’ and ‘Them,’ Suspicion Poisons the Air

Walter Bernstein is a screenwriter and the author of "Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).

The first time the FBI came to see me, it was to ask about a man I’d known in college who was accused of spying for the Soviet Union. That was in the late 1940s, when the Russians had already turned, inexplicably to some and inevitably to others, from allies to enemies.

The next time, the FBI came asking about me. It was not really a surprise. I knew I was on at least one list of alleged subversives.

Agents came frequently after that, usually about once a month, arriving at my home at different hours of the day. They always came in pairs, a different set each time, dressed neatly in dark suits and snap brim hats, looking both oddly alike and mismatched, as though they were unrelated but from the same orphanage. They would show their badges and ask politely if they could talk to me. I would answer, equally polite, that I had nothing to say, and they would leave.


And now, in investigating antiwar activists, the government is at it again. The net is spread wide. Before the Republican convention, the FBI visited presumed protesters all over the country, asking what they intended to do in New York. The reason was the same as it was half a century ago: to protect us, to sniff out subversion, prevent terror before it happens. There is no harm, after all, in asking questions. The purpose is only to gather facts.

Still, opinions are also noted. Names go on lists. Neighbors and employers are alerted, and the atmosphere becomes thick with suspicion. People lose their jobs not because of the actions they perform but the ideas they hold. It becomes easier to conform. In 1950, the janitor of my building was asked to note what magazines I received in the mail. A decent man, he was apologetic when he told me. He felt sullied, caught between his government and his disgust at becoming a snitch.

There is nothing new about this. We are a nation with a long and fond tradition of witch hunting, from the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 through the Palmer “Red Raids,” which began in 1919, and J. Edgar Hoover. Usually it has required an external enemy, real or imagined. In my day, it was the menace of communism. The result, for me, was that I was blacklisted, unable to find work for the next decade. I was not alone, and it was not confined to the entertainment business. It included doctors, lawyers, teachers, unionists and anyone linked to left-wing movements.

Today, of course, the menace is terrorism. And in the name of fighting terror, we create another kind of terror for ourselves. We have already had the pronouncement: If you are not with us, you are against us.

It is not the first time I have been chilled by the threat in those words, angered by their arrogance and stupidity. No one questions the need to combat terrorism, to guard against its murderous designs. But we are too frequently a people ill led and ill informed, and our strength has not saved us from the damage we inflict on ourselves because of our fears and the political profit that can be made from them.

The FBI didn’t always come to my house. Sometimes agents would stop me on the street or getting off a bus or coming up out of the subway or leaving a theater. Always the same question, always polite, and always leaving me with what they wanted me to understand, which was that they knew where I was, what I was doing, who I was with. It went on like that for 10 years. They have not come visiting me this time, at least not yet. In their eyes, if not mine, I’ve passed my radical shelf life. But I remember that knock on my door, the stopping on the street, the two polite men asking the polite question. It scared me then. It scares me now.