Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

A couple of years ago I found myself driving east in the southern part of Colorado, heading for Wichita, Kansas, where I was booked to do one of my one-man Alexander Hamilton performances. I had decided to drive, rather than fly, to that gig because I hadn’t really explored that part of our state very much. I was intent on visiting a vast and largely empty section of Colorado prairie with a profound historical importance to our state and our nation, the Amache Relocation Center.

Near the town of Granada, I turned off the main road and up a quiet drive that opened on the 10,500 acres that composed Amache. The winds were blowing, and I was utterly alone in that seemingly limitless space. The grassland extended to the desolate and far-off horizon. There were a few remaining foundations of former buildings, as well as a reconstructed barracks and a watch tower. I was standing in the center of one of our nation’s greatest shames — a Japanese-American internment camp that imprisoned our fellow citizens during World War II.

I listened to the wind and felt immense sorrow, tinged with a bit of guilt, over this vile place that touched the lives of over 10,000 people who likely once thought the Constitution ensured their rights. There are a few signs with pictures, showing what the camp was like, but you really need to visit to get a sense of the immense loneliness of the place. I was there for a couple of hours and I tried hard to imagine what it would feel like to be stuck there for years, high on a wind-swept hill looking out over the country you loved.

I think of Amache often, and those memories were brought back to the forefront of my thinking as I read the recent stories about unidentified federal officers, seemingly clothed in the uniforms of our military services, defying the wishes of local elected officials by engaging with protesters (who had become much more peaceful in the days before the feds showed up) and grabbing fellow Americans without warrant or identification and stuffing them in unmarked vans. It’s happening in other cities, and could soon come to Denver, I worry.

Of all the things that President Trump has done to dishonor the office (and there are many, many examples), to me the most horrific and troubling has been that he is sending of what he calls a “surge” — borrowing a popular phrase from George W. Bush’s Iraq War — of federal agents to cities he has decided need additional pacification. Ostensibly sent to “protect” federal buildings, these agents have not been forming rings around said buildings and nothing else. No, they have been taking our fellow citizens away.

Having served in actual military uniform for over 25 years and having taught government and the Constitution to military cadets at the Air Force Academy for many years, I find myself deeply upset and worried about my beloved nation’s direction. In the same week that Trump stated he would not necessarily accept the results of the upcoming election should he lose, this same petulant and deceitful individual thought it a good idea to send federal forces to the states and cities that, ostensibly, Republicans respect within their mantra of “states rights.”  

Recall that at the beginning of June, Trump threatened to send the actual U.S. military into the streets to stop the protests that arose from the murder of George Floyd. As a retired military officer, I recall that my duty was always to obey the lawful orders of those above me. I hope the reason Trump backed away from using the actual military was that he got pushback from our leaders in uniform, who hopefully questioned the lawfulness of such an order.

Instead, Trump cobbled together a troupe of federal law enforcement officers, removed their identifying information, put them in military uniforms, and sent them out. I confess I am disappointed that we haven’t seen interviews with agents who refused this onerous duty and resigned rather than become an internal secret police, and perhaps there have been some, but I am unaware of any thus far. 

History is a wonderful teacher if we listen to the lessons it teaches. We need look no further back than my father’s war — WWII — to see the actions of tyrants. Trump’s recent actions would bring a smile to the face of Benito Mussolini, and Trumps rants against his enemies would find cold agreement in the mind of Hitler's propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels. I know that is a very strong statement, but these are very troubled times.

As a former “federal agent” I find myself intensely worried about our nation’s next year or so. The Founders critically assumed that the system they created would result in leaders of character and competence. The election of Donald Trump shows their lack of vision when it comes to demagogues. And I would ask my Republican friends, who are OK with these troops roaming our city streets, if they would be equally sanguine if a President Hillary had taken the same action. How about a President Biden doing so?

I stood alone atop a hill in Amache wondering then how we as a nation could have created such a place. To my horror and sadness, I now can see the path to Amache, and I worry that our nation is walking blindly toward that end. 

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

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