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Sacco and Vanzetti await their digital-era counterparts

June 14, 2013 - Paul Giannamore
There were Red Scares after World War I and World War II. They were an overreaction to the world around us, and they caught a lot of folks who didn’t need catching. It should be no surprise that after the undeclared war without end involving everyone in the world but Not Called World War III that we would have scares and overreactions today.

I just watched, for the third or so time, a 2006 documentary by Peter Miller on the Sacco and Vanzetti case that captivated the nation in the 1920s, right up until the two Italian immigrants -- and professed anarchists -- were executed. They were part of the anarchist, anti-government movement that gained some traction in the rich vs. poor divided world of the prosperous early 20th century and they were caught riding public transportation with guns in their pockets after a payroll delivery robbery resulted in a murder at a Boston factory. Enough said. Italian immigrants, anti-government stances, guns. Guilty as hell.

That’s pretty much what happened, too. More than 100 witnesses testified Vanzetti was selling fish elsewhere when the crime occurred. But they were Italians speaking through interpreters. The Anglo witnesses with big holes in their testimony were believed.

The judge allowed character assassination of the two men, too. After seven years of appeals, they were executed in 1927.

By the way, the anarchists in Boston in that era were what we would consider terrorists today, blowing up stuff and sending letter bombs. No evidence actually connected Sacco and Vanzetti to being bomb tossers. But they did dodge the draft for World War I by going to Mexico, which must have made the 1920s version of beer-swillin’ pickup truck drivin’ wannabe cowboys reading the case say, “Well, then, Jim, they musta been up to sumpthin’.”

“Yah, boy-howdy, Earl. Let’s go watch some NASCAR.” (Err, well, maybe a bicycle race or an aviation barnstormer.)

That, folks, is what makes me so crazy about this NSA thing. Sacco and Vanzetti. (Doesn’t help that my high school journalism teacher told us all about Sacco and Vanzetti and had a poster on the wall of their case.. I suppose he would be labeled a subversive and fired nowadays, if he weren’t long since retired.)

Yep, Sacco and Vanzetti were the wrong guys in the wrong place and they were pawns of a justice system that needed an example and a civil liberties movement seeking a cause celebre. Their attorney played all the wrong cards in that civil liberties cause celebre instead of actually defending the two men. And the government won, imagine that.

It would not be any different today if somehow -- and I cannot believe this won’t happen -- the NSA computers picked up a bunch of innocent words, connected them together, combined them with a phone call or a web posting or two, let alone nationality, and assumed somebody truly warranted warrantless scrutiny.

Except they’d be on the 24-hour news TV and Jim and Earl would be able to go watch some NASCAR instead of talking about civil liberties vs. security.


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