Elise Patkotak: U.S. needs to rediscover ideals that won the Cold War

Elise Patkotak

I grew up a child of the cold war. America and Western Europe were good, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), China, Cuba and all other communist countries were bad. South America and Africa had not yet really come of age on the international scene. It was a black and white world. Democracy good. Communism bad.

We learned that in Russia, the government spied on its own people. There was always a collective gasp of horror at that statement. Imagine, a government that listened in on its own people. The rulers of the USSR claimed that if you were doing nothing wrong you had nothing to fear from this. That is, that's what they said when they weren't denying it was even happening.

The other bad thing we learned about the Soviet Union was that it had places called gulags. They were frozen and forbidding lands where people were sent for sometimes no apparent reason. People often had no trial before prolonged incarceration. Frequently their only real offense was questioning their government. We learned that once you went to a gulag, you were probably going to die from the harsh conditions before you got released.

Communism was a very convenient, recognizable and bordered enemy. You knew what it was and where it was. There was nothing grey in the relationship between them and us.

Then in the late 80s communism started to crumble under its own weight, incompetence and misguided policies. One day there was a wall dividing Berlin, a wall that for a child of the 50s seemed an immutable presence that was the demarcation between good and bad. The next day that wall was gone and in breathtakingly swift time, the whole system collapsed in Europe. China started admitting private enterprise. And Cuba faced the world alone and poor, no longer propped up by Soviet largesse.

America had won. The forces of good had triumphed over the forces of evil. It was all so very appropriate. After all, being an American meant being better than a system that would spy on its own citizens and maintain gulags of death.

So how did we ever get from there to here, to a place where news that the American government is collecting data on all of us seems to engender nothing more than a yawn of intense ennui? How did we get from a country of laws to a country that keeps a penal colony open with no end in sight, no justice or rule of law applying? If we have reached the point where we trust the government to hold people in indefinite detention based on the government's statement that we should trust their judgment that these are bad people, then maybe we didn't win that Cold War so resoundingly. We seem to be morphing into citizens of the old Soviet Union who didn't challenge their government when it did the same kind of thing.

Americans seem to be very good at chest thumping and cries of "These colors don't run" or "Don't tread on me". But we have grown loath to actually live up to those words. We accept intrusions into our most personal spaces; we allow our government to hold prisoners against whom nothing has been proven. We trade our freedom for security and in doing so risk losing both.

As we celebrate the birth of America this week, perhaps we should pause and give some thought to how much we have willingly relinquished in privacy and rights in order to gain some illusion of safety. The people who founded this country took on a super power in a war they had no reasonable expectation of winning. Yet we, their descendants, are apparently so frightened by the people at Gitmo that we won't let them on American soil or give them access to the very justice that is the cornerstone of our democracy. What better way to say Happy Birthday America than to show the rest of the world through our actions that we truly believe in our principles? What better way to say the terrorists haven't won?

I love this country. It gave my family a life they would never have been able to achieve in the Old World. It saddens me to see us drifting so far and fast from what made us great.

Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow.