Throughout history empires have been formed through war and great tactics. However, many forget the toll that this takes on a nation’s citizens. Foreign nations and their people are not the only ones that are forced to reckon with a hegemonic power. American citizens have also had to pay the price of a government that may not always respect its own people.
This dark period of United States history saw anti-communist hysteria reach its boiling point. Led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover, hundreds of Americans were imprisoned and others lost their jobs for simply being subpoenaed to testify. Many who were imprisoned did not even have connections to communist organizations but were victims of circumstance. An industry affected greatly by the era was Hollywood. Many actors, writers and directors were blacklisted and unable to work. Notable Americans that suffered as a result of persecution include Lucille Ball, Dalton Trumbo, W.E.B Dubois, as well as Charlie Chaplin.
McCarthyism also led to the targeting of homosexuals who were viewed as threats to “national security.” Fear mongering allowed McCarthy and others to create programs that allowed them to spy on government employees in the hopes of outing them as homosexual and demonstrating they were not loyal government citizens. Ironically, McCarthy’s own sexual affiliation and behavior became a point of contention and caused him to lose political standing.
9. Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment
A study that meant to document the natural progression of untreated syphilis in poor African American men is now a testament to government abuse. The most amazing fact of this study is not that public health officials were willing to carry out the study, but that it carried on for 40 years. It continued until 1972, when a whistle blower by the name of Peter Buxtun came forward to expose the study.
In 1932, public health officials wanted to study the effects of syphilis on African Americans as it was thought that the disease would have a different affect on black people. A total of 600 impoverished sharecroppers from Alabama were enrolled in the study, and 399 of the men already had syphilis when it began. By 1943, antibiotic penicillin demonstrated an ability to cure the disease, but the officials did not divulge or treat the infected with the antibiotic, or even tell the patients they had the disease. By 1972, 28 people had died of syphilis and 100 were dead of related complications. Additionally, 19 children were born with congenital syphilis as a result.
8. Project MKUltra
The Tuskegee syphilis experiment wasn’t the only time the government used citizens for experiments, either. During the Cold War, the CIA commissioned Project MKUltra in an attempt to identify drugs that could be used for torture and to force the victims to divulge secrets through mind control. Initially, CIA officials used victims that “could not fight back” but eventually widened the scope.
The program was sanctioned despite the fact that it used test subjects who were unaware and unwilling to participate. Methods used included administration of LSD, barbiturate IV, amphetamine IV, heroin, morphine, and mescaline, with non-drug methodologies including sleep deprivation, isolation, sensory deprivation, verbal and sexual abuse, and various forms of torture.
Project MKUltra was performed on a host of Americans throughout various institutions including hospitals, colleges, prisons, and pharmaceutical companies. One of the victims of the study was Ted Kaczynski – better known as the Unabomber.
In response to the growing radicalism of the oppressed segments of population, the FBI led a government sanctioned plan called COINTELPRO (short for Counter Intelligence Program) to spy on these organizations and their most prominent members. J. Edgar Hoover ordered agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, neutralize or otherwise eliminate” the most prominent leaders of radical organizations. The main targets of the government’s illegal activities were civil rights organizations and black power supporters.
The overall range of surveillance was broad and included the Rainbow Coalition, the American Indian movement, white supremacist groups, the New Left, and even the likes of Albert Einstein (a noted socialist). The actions and existence of the program were well known and even approved by President Kennedy.
Methods used by COINTELPRO were far-reaching and effective in disrupting the targets. The FBI was able to infiltrate many of the organizations, and were also able to discredit and harass them by planting stories and spreading misinformation that splintered the groups. The program was kept secret until 1971 when a burglary into FBI offices led to the discovery of documents that exposed the operation.
6. Murder of Fred Hampton
It’s horrific to think that a government could murder one of its own citizens but that is exactly what happened to Fred Hampton. A revolutionary and political organizer, one of Hampton’s most powerful achievements was negotiating a non-aggression pact between Chicago’s most violent street gangs. Hampton was seen as a charismatic leader and quickly rose through the ranks of the Black Panthers. The Black Panthers began to splinter as a result of COINTELPRO, and Hampton worked hard to keep the party together – something that did not sit well with J. Edgar Hoover.
In 1967, the FBI opened a file on Hampton that would eventually expand to over 4,000 pages. The night before his murder, Hampton dined with several affiliates and was slipped a powerful barbiturate by an FBI informant. Police officers raided Hampton’s home at 4:00 a.m. and murdered Hampton along with Mark Clark, another party member. In a press conference after the murder, officers stated that they had defended themselves against a “violent” group of Panthers. Charges of aggravated assault and attempted murder against all other Panthers arrested that night were later dropped.
5. Hurricane Katrina
Yes, we know the government didn’t cause Hurricane Katrina. While that statement is correct, the inept response to the crisis rests firmly on the government, and the ensuing fallout on the Gulf Coast will be remembered as a tragic and epic failure.
Katrina was the fifth deadliest natural disaster in United States history and its aftermath left citizens without food, water, and shelter. Many Americans died as a result of thirst, exhaustion, and, sadly, violence after the storm. An enduring image of the crisis is one of school buses that could have been used in the evacuation, but instead sat empty in parking lots due to local government’s refusal to put them into service. Amazingly, the administration had not declared a state of emergency for the coastal parishes of Orleans, Jefferson, and Plaquemines leading up to the disaster. Testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee later revealed that this was due to Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco failing to include those parishes in her request for assistance.
A total of 1,836 people died across seven states due in large part to slow response times and poorly coordinated rescue and relief efforts.
4. Shays’ Rebellion
It’s easy to believe that the earliest American citizens had grievances against the government. Many patriots of the war were barely paid for their efforts and returned home with great debt. Instead of easing the debt of veterans, state governments called court hearings for tax and debt collection, and many individuals had their farmland seized.
A farmer named Plough Jogger described his plight at a commoners meeting, saying “I have been greatly abused, have been obliged to do more than my part in the war, been loaded with class rates, town rates, province rates, Continental rates and all rates … been pulled and hauled by sheriffs, constables and collectors, and had my cattle sold for less than they were worth.”
Daniel Shays, an aggrieved farmer, organized 4,000 rebels to stage an uprising against the Massachusetts government that was earnestly put down by local and state militia. Four rebels were killed, and hundreds were arrested with 18 sentenced to death. In the end only two were hanged for their participation, and Shays received a full pardon.
3. Capital Punishment
The use of capital punishment is a long debated topic, but what cannot be argued is that sometimes the wrongfully convicted find themselves on death row. Some have even been executed before the chance for exoneration. A recent study estimated that 4.1% of death row defendants would be cleared if held on sentence of death indefinitely. The study highlighted that it is unknowable to determine the accuracy of criminal conviction because there is no systemic method of review. However, in cases of death row, a process does exist. As a result, we’re able to know and determine a rate of exoneration for death row defendants.
One tragic case involves the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. In 1992, he was convicted of murdering his three young children by arson. Strapped to the gurney, Willingham yelled that he was an innocent man but his protests were ignored. The Innocence Project began looking into Willingham’s case, and in 2006 submitted forensic evidence that proved his pleas were rooted in fact. Willingham is just one of many that have been killed for crimes they didn’t commit.
2. Persecution of Whistleblowers
One of the cornerstones of the United States is the right to free speech, and while we are not free from repercussion in the private sector, we expect protection from the government. Daniel Ellsberg learned this wasn’t always the case when he released the Pentagon Papers, becoming the victim of personal attacks and a campaign against him by President Nixon. Presidential aides broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office hoping to find information that would discredit him. When that failed, they planned to break into his home but were not given authorization.
Another example of the grave consequences about speaking against the government is the case of discharged soldier Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning). Manning released material pertaining to a 2007 Baghdad airstrike, the 2009 Granai airstrike in Afghanistan and the release of 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables. Manning was prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act and was sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment.
Similarly, the persecution of Edward Snowden is well known, with his whistleblowing putting him on the run from the US government.
1. The Drone Killing of a US Teenager
In recent years the US military has greatly increased the use of drones in the fight against terrorism, and nations like Yemen and Pakistan have felt the brunt with many human rights organizations documenting the great civilian causalities. Sometimes, even American citizens meet their demise by predator drones.
Abdulrahman Anwar al-Awlaki was a 16-year-old boy living in Yemen, who was killed while eating dinner at an outdoor restaurant. Like his father, he was an American citizen but became an inadvertent target due to his dad’s work as a propagandist for al-Aqaeda. It remains unknown why Abdulrahman was killed, as the CIA had already killed Anwar al-Awlaki and the young boy had no affiliations with any terrorist organizations. Anonymous tips have indicated the intended target was Ibrahim al-Banna, an senior al-Qaeda operative, and Abdulrahman’s death is typically chalked up to merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time.