I'm reading a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the civilian administrator of the Manhattan Project. I've finally plowed through towards the end of the book, when Oppenheimer is stripped of his security clearance. (There's a lot of reasons for this, and the book goes into them.) Of course, it's the late forties and early fifties, so if you're at all familiar with the political climate of the time, it's full of HUAC and McCarthy and some of the ugliest moments in US history. (Not to mention that J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director, was a paranoid jerk who didn't care much about the rule of law, but I do digress.)
Anyway, I'd always thought that the HUAC/McCarthy thing was bad because it forced people to confess to things that weren't true, and blew innocent associations into world-shattering communist plots, both of which aren't healthy for a mostly-functioning democracy. But there was one piece of the puzzle I'd failed to understand until I got hit with a sledgehammer over it.
From the time we are young, one of the values instilled in us is that you don't rat out a buddy. I mean, there's a reason "tattle-tale" was a grave insult on the grade school playground, after all. As we grow older, we find ways to justify the times when we have to, but it always comes at some cost, and is usually an agonizing decision.
HUAC/McCarthy forced people to name names. And they often forced people to do it in the most humiliating way possible, and then, just to rub the salt in the wound, punished them almost as strictly as if they'd refused to talk.
I'd never thought of it in quite that way before, but it makes sense. And it makes that whole period just that more ugly and disgusting.