in 10 Easy Steps
From Hitler to
Pinochet and Beyond, History Shows There Are certain Steps That Any
Would-Be Dictator Must Take To Destroy Constitutional Freedoms. And
George Bush and His Administration Seem To Be Taking Them All
Tuesday, April 24, 2007 by The Guardian/UK
there was a military coup in Thailand. The leaders of
the coup took a number of steps, rather systematically, as if they had
a shopping list. In a sense, they did. Within a matter of days,
democracy had been closed down: the coup leaders declared martial law,
sent armed soldiers into residential areas, took over radio and TV
stations, issued restrictions on the press, tightened some limits on
travel, and took certain activists into custody. They were not figuring
these things out as they went along. If you look at history, you can
see that there is essentially a blueprint for turning an open society
into a dictatorship. That blueprint has been used again and again in
more and less bloody, more and less terrifying ways. But it is always
effective. It is very difficult and arduous to create and sustain a
democracy - but history shows that closing one down is much simpler.
You simply have to be willing to take the 10 steps.
as this is to contemplate, it is clear, if you are willing to look,
that each of these 10 steps has already been initiated today in the United States
by the Bush administration.
Americans like me were born in freedom, we have a hard time even
considering that it is possible for us to become as unfree -
domestically - as many other nations. Because we no longer learn much
about our rights or our system of government - the task of being aware
of the constitution has been outsourced from citizens’ ownership to
being the domain of professionals such as lawyers and professors - we
scarcely recognize the checks and balances that the founders put in
place, even as they are being systematically dismantled. Because we
don’t learn much about European history, the setting up of a department
of “homeland” security - remember who else was keen on the word
“homeland” - didn’t raise the alarm bells it might have.
It is my
argument that, beneath our very noses, George Bush and his
administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open
society. It is time for us to be willing to think the unthinkable - as
the author and political journalist Joe Conason, has put it, that it
can happen here. And that we are further along than we realize.
eloquently warned of the danger of American authoritarianism. I am
arguing that we need also to look at the lessons of European and other
kinds of fascism to understand the potential seriousness of the events
we see unfolding in the US.
1. INVOKE A
TERRIFYING INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL ENEMY
After we were
hit on September 11 2001, we were in a state of national shock. Less
than six weeks later, on October 26 2001, the USA Patriot Act was
passed by a Congress that had little chance to debate it; many said
that they scarcely had time to read it. We were told we were now on a
“war footing”; we were in a “global war” against a “global caliphate”
intending to “wipe out civilization”. There have been other times of
crisis in which the US
accepted limits on civil liberties, such as during the civil war, when Lincoln declared
martial law, and the second world war, when thousands of
Japanese-American citizens were interned. But this situation, as Bruce
Fein of the American Freedom Agenda notes, is unprecedented: all our
other wars had an endpoint, so the pendulum was able to swing back
toward freedom; this war is defined as open-ended in time and without
national boundaries in space - the globe itself is the battlefield.
“This time,” Fein says, “there will be no defined end.”
terrifying threat - hydra-like, secretive, evil - is an old trick. It
can, like Hitler’s invocation of a communist threat to the nation’s
security, be based on actual events (one Wisconsin academic has faced
calls for his dismissal because he noted, among other things, that the
alleged communist arson, the Reichstag fire of February 1933, was
swiftly followed in Nazi Germany by passage of the Enabling Act, which
replaced constitutional law with an open-ended state of emergency). Or
the terrifying threat can be based, like the National Socialist
evocation of the “global conspiracy of world Jewry”, on myth.
It is not that
global Islamist terrorism is not a severe danger; of course it is. I am
arguing rather that the language used to convey the nature of the
threat is different in a country such as Spain - which has also
suffered violent terrorist attacks - than it is in America. Spanish
citizens know that they face a grave security threat; what we as
American citizens believe is that we are potentially threatened with
the end of civilisation as we know it. Of course, this makes us more
willing to accept restrictions on our freedoms.
Once you have
got everyone scared, the next step is to create a prison system outside
the rule of law (as Bush put it, he wanted the American detention
center at Guantánamo Bay to be situated in legal “outer space”)
- where torture takes place.
At first, the
people who are sent there are seen by citizens as outsiders:
troublemakers, spies, “enemies of the people” or “criminals”.
Initially, citizens tend to support the secret prison system; it makes
them feel safer and they do not identify with the prisoners. But soon
enough, civil society leaders - opposition members, labor activists,
clergy and journalists - are arrested and sent there as well.
took place in fascist shifts or anti-democracy crackdowns ranging from Italy and Germany in the 1920s and
1930s to the Latin American coups of the 1970s and beyond. It is
standard practice for closing down an open society or crushing a
With its jails
in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, of course, Guantánamo in Cuba,
where detainees are abused, and kept indefinitely without trial and
without access to the due process of the law, America certainly has its
gulag now. Bush and his allies in Congress recently announced they
would issue no information about the secret CIA “black site” prisons
throughout the world, which are used to incarcerate people who have
been seized off the street.
history tend to metastasize, becoming ever larger and more secretive,
ever more deadly and formalized. We know from first-hand
accounts, photographs, videos and government documents that people,
innocent and guilty, have been tortured in the US-run prisons we are
aware of and those we can’t investigate adequately.
still assume this system and detainee abuses involve only scary brown
people with whom they don’t generally identify. It was brave of the
conservative pundit William Safire to quote the anti-Nazi pastor Martin
Niemöller, who had been seized as a political prisoner: “First
they came for the Jews.” Most Americans don’t understand
yet that the destruction of the rule of law at Guantánamo set a
dangerous precedent for them, too.
By the way,
the establishment of military tribunals that deny prisoners due process
tends to come early on in a fascist shift. Mussolini and Stalin set up
such tribunals. On April 24 1934, the Nazis, too, set up the People’s
Court, which also bypassed the judicial system: prisoners were held
indefinitely, often in isolation, and tortured, without being charged
with offenses, and were subjected to show trials. Eventually, the
Special Courts became a parallel system that put pressure on the
regular courts to abandon the rule of law in favor of Nazi ideology
when making decisions.
who seek what I call a “fascist shift” want to close down an open
society, they send paramilitary groups of scary young men out to
terrorize citizens. The Blackshirts roamed the Italian countryside
beating up communists; the Brownshirts staged violent rallies
This paramilitary force is especially important in a democracy: you
need citizens to fear thug violence and so you need thugs who are free
following 9/11 have proved a bonanza for America’s
security contractors, with the Bush administration outsourcing areas of
work that traditionally fell to the US military. In the
process, contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars have been
issued for security work by mercenaries at home and abroad. In Iraq,
some of these contract operatives have been accused of involvement in
torturing prisoners, harassing journalists and firing on Iraqi
civilians. Under Order 17, issued to regulate contractors in Iraq by the one-time US administrator in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, these
contractors are immune from prosecution
Yes, but that
is in Iraq, you could argue; however, after Hurricane Katrina, the
Department of Homeland Security hired and deployed hundreds of armed
private security guards in New Orleans. The investigative journalist
Jeremy Scahill interviewed one unnamed guard who reported having fired
on unarmed civilians in the city. It was a natural disaster that
underlay that episode - but the administration’s endless war on terror
means ongoing scope for what are in effect privately contracted armies
to take on crisis and emergency management at home in US cities.
Thugs in America?
Groups of angry young Republican men, dressed in identical shirts and
trousers, menaced poll workers counting the votes in Florida in
2000. If you are reading history, you can imagine that there can be a
need for “public order” on the next election day. Say there are
protests, or a threat, on the day of an election; history would not
rule out the presence of a private security firm at a polling station
“to restore public order”.
4. SET UP AN
INTERNAL SURVEILLANCE SYSTEM
Italy, in Nazi
Germany, in communist East Germany,
in communist China
- in every closed society - secret police spy on ordinary people and
encourage neighbors to spy on neighbors. The Stasi needed to keep only
a minority of East Germans under surveillance to convince a majority
that they themselves were being watched.
In 2005 and
2006, when James Risen and Eric Lichtblau wrote in the New York Times
about a secret state program to wiretap citizens’ phones, read their
emails and follow international financial transactions, it became clear
to ordinary Americans that they, too, could be under state scrutiny.
societies, this surveillance is cast as being about “national
security”; the true function is to keep citizens docile and inhibit
their activism and dissent.
thing you do is related to step four - you infiltrate and harass
citizens’ groups. It can be trivial: a church in Pasadena, whose
minister preached that Jesus was in favor of peace, found itself being
investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, while churches that got
Republicans out to vote, which is equally illegal under US tax law,
have been left alone.
harassment is more serious: the American Civil Liberties Union reports
that thousands of ordinary American anti-war, environmental and other
groups have been infiltrated by agents: a secret Pentagon database
includes more than four dozen peaceful anti-war meetings, rallies or
marches by American citizens in its category of 1,500 “suspicious
incidents”. The equally secret Counterintelligence Field Activity
(CIFA) agency of the Department of Defense has been gathering
information about domestic organizations engaged in peaceful political
activities: CIFA is supposed to track “potential terrorist threats” as
it watches ordinary US
citizen activists. A little-noticed new law has redefined
activism such as animal rights protests as “terrorism”. So the
definition of “terrorist” slowly expands to include the opposition.
6. ENGAGE IN
ARBITRARY DETENTION AND RELEASE
people. It is a kind of cat-and-mouse game. Nicholas D Kristof and
Sheryl WuDunn, the investigative reporters who wrote China Wakes: the
Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power, describe pro-democracy
activists in China,
such as Wei Jingsheng, being arrested and released many times. In a
closing or closed society there is a “list” of dissidents and
opposition leaders: you are targeted in this way once you are on the
list, and it is hard to get off the list.
In 2004, America’s
Transportation Security Administration confirmed that it had a list of
passengers who were targeted for security searches or worse if they
tried to fly. People who have found themselves on the list? Two
middle-aged women peace activists in San Francisco;
liberal Senator Edward Kennedy; a member of Venezuela’s government - after Venezuela’s president had criticized
Bush; and thousands of ordinary US citizens.
Walter F Murphy is emeritus of Princeton University;
he is one of the foremost constitutional scholars in the nation and
author of the classic Constitutional Democracy. Murphy is also a
decorated former marine, and he is not even especially politically
liberal. But on March 1 this year, he was denied a boarding pass at Newark, “because
I was on the Terrorist Watch list”.
“Have you been
in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying because of
that,” asked the airline employee.
said Murphy, “that I had not so marched but had, in September 2006,
given a lecture at Princeton,
televised and put on the web, highly critical of George Bush for his
many violations of the constitution.”
it,” the man said.
marcher? Potential terrorist. Support the constitution? Potential
terrorist. History shows that the categories of “enemy of the people”
tend to expand ever deeper into civil life.
James Yee, a US
citizen, was the Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo who was accused
of mishandling classified documents. He was harassed by the US
military before the charges against him were dropped. Yee has been
detained and released several times. He is still of interest.
Mayfield, a US
citizen and lawyer in Oregon,
was mistakenly identified as a possible terrorist. His house was
secretly broken into and his computer seized. Though he is innocent of
the accusation against him, he is still on the list.
It is a
standard practice of fascist societies that once you are on the list,
you can’t get off.
7. TARGET KEY
servants, artists and academics with job loss if they don’t toe the
line. Mussolini went after the rectors of state universities who did
not conform to the fascist line; so did Joseph Goebbels, who purged
academics who were not pro-Nazi; so did Chile’s Augusto Pinochet;
so does the Chinese communist Politburo in punishing pro-democracy
students and professors.
Academe is a
tinderbox of activism, so those seeking a fascist shift punish
academics and students with professional loss if they do not
“coordinate”, in Goebbels’ term, ideologically. Since civil servants
are the sector of society most vulnerable to being fired by a given
regime, they are also a group that fascists typically “coordinate”
early on: the Reich Law for the Re-establishment of a Professional
Civil Service was passed on April 7 1933.
supporters in state legislatures in several states put pressure on
regents at state universities to penalize or fire academics who have
been critical of the administration. As for civil servants, the Bush
administration has derailed the career of one military lawyer who spoke
up for fair trials for detainees, while an administration official
publicly intimidated the law firms that represent detainees pro bono by
threatening to call for their major corporate clients to boycott them.
CIA contract worker who said in a closed blog that “waterboarding is
torture” was stripped of the security clearance she needed in order to
do her job.
the administration purged eight US attorneys for what looks
like insufficient political loyalty. When Goebbels purged the civil
service in April 1933, attorneys were “coordinated” too, a step that
eased the way of the increasingly brutal laws to follow.
Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 30s, East Germany in the 50s, Czechoslovakia in the 60s, the Latin
American dictatorships in the 70s, China in the 80s and 90s -
all dictatorships and would-be dictators target newspapers and
journalists. They threaten and harass them in more open societies that
they are seeking to close, and they arrest them and worse in societies
that have been closed already.
to Protect Journalists says arrests of US journalists are at an
all-time high: Josh Wolf (no relation), a blogger in San Francisco, has
been put in jail for a year for refusing to turn over video of an
anti-war demonstration; Homeland Security brought a criminal complaint
against reporter Greg Palast, claiming he threatened “critical
infrastructure” when he and a TV producer were filming victims of
Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. Palast had written a bestseller
critical of the Bush administration.
reporters and writers have been punished in other ways. Joseph C Wilson
accused Bush, in a New York Times op-ed, of leading the country to war
on the basis of a false charge that Saddam Hussein had acquired
yellowcake uranium in Niger. His wife, Valerie
Plame, was outed as a CIA spy - a form of retaliation that ended her
and job loss are nothing, though, compared with how the US is treating journalists seeking to
cover the conflict in Iraq in an unbiased way. The Committee to Protect
Journalists has documented multiple accounts of the US military in Iraq
firing upon or threatening to fire upon unembedded (meaning
independent) reporters and camera operators from organisations ranging
from al-Jazeera to the BBC. While westerners may question the accounts
by al-Jazeera, they should pay attention to the accounts of reporters
such as the BBC’s Kate Adie. In some cases reporters have been wounded
or killed, including ITN’s Terry Lloyd in 2003. Both CBS and the
Associated Press in Iraq
had staff members seized by the US military and taken to
violent prisons; the news organizations were unable to see the evidence
against their staffers.
Over time in
closing societies, real news is supplanted by fake news and false
documents. Pinochet showed Chilean citizens falsified documents to back
up his claim that terrorists had been about to attack the nation. The
yellowcake charge, too, was based on forged papers.
You won’t have
a shutdown of news in modern America - it is not
possible. But you can have, as Frank Rich and Sidney Blumenthal have
pointed out, a steady stream of lies polluting the news well. What you already have is a
White House directing a stream of false information that is so
relentless that it is increasingly hard to sort out truth from untruth.
In a fascist system, it’s not the lies that count but the
muddying. When citizens can’t tell real news from fake, they give up
their demands for accountability bit by bit.
as “treason” and criticism as “espionage’. Every closing society does
this, just as it elaborates laws that increasingly criminalize certain
kinds of speech and expand the definition of “spy” and “traitor”. When
Bill Keller, the publisher of the New York Times, ran the
Lichtblau/Risen stories, Bush called the Times’ leaking of classified
information “disgraceful”, while Republicans in Congress called for
Keller to be charged with treason, and rightwing commentators and news
outlets kept up the “treason” drumbeat. Some commentators, as Conason
noted, reminded readers smugly that one penalty for violating the
Espionage Act is execution.
right to note how serious a threat that attack represented. It is also
important to recall that the 1938 Moscow show trial accused the editor
of Izvestia, Nikolai Bukharin, of treason; Bukharin was, in fact,
executed. And it is important to remind Americans that when the 1917
Espionage Act was last widely invoked, during the infamous 1919 Palmer
Raids, leftist activists were arrested without warrants in sweeping
roundups, kept in jail for up to five months, and “beaten, starved,
suffocated, tortured and threatened with death”, according to the
historian Myra MacPherson. After that, dissent was muted in America
for a decade.
In Stalin’s Soviet Union, dissidents were “enemies of the
people”. National Socialists called those who supported Weimar democracy
And here is
where the circle closes: most Americans do not realize
that since September of last year - when Congress wrongly, foolishly,
passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 - the president has the
power to call any US
citizen an “enemy combatant”. He has the power to define what
“enemy combatant” means. The president can also delegate to anyone he
chooses in the executive branch the right to define “enemy combatant”
any way he or she wants and then seize Americans accordingly.
Even if you or
I are American citizens, even if we turn out to be completely innocent
of what he has accused us of doing, he has the power to have us seized
as we are changing planes at Newark tomorrow, or have us taken with a
knock on the door; ship you or me to a navy brig; and keep you or me in
isolation, possibly for months, while awaiting trial. (Prolonged
isolation, as psychiatrists know, triggers psychosis in otherwise
mentally healthy prisoners. That is why Stalin’s gulag had an isolation
cell, like Guantánamo’s, in every satellite prison. Camp 6, the
newest, most brutal facility at Guantánamo, is all isolation
citizens will get a trial eventually - for now. But legal rights
activists at the Center for Constitutional Rights say that the Bush
administration is trying increasingly aggressively to find ways to get
around giving even US citizens fair trials. “Enemy combatant” is a
status offense - it is not even something you have to have done. “We
have absolutely moved over into a preventive detention model - you look
like you could do something bad, you might do something bad, so we’re
going to hold you,” says a spokeswoman of the CCR.
surely do not get this yet. No wonder: it is hard to believe, even
though it is true. In every closing society, at a certain
point there are some high-profile arrests - usually of opposition
leaders, clergy and journalists. Then everything goes quiet. After
those arrests, there are still newspapers, courts, TV and radio, and
the facades of a civil society. There just isn’t real dissent. There
just isn’t freedom. If you look at history, just before
those arrests is where we are now.
THE RULE OF LAW
Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007 gave the president new powers
over the national guard. This means that in a national
emergency - which the president now has enhanced powers to declare - he
can send Michigan’s militia to
enforce a state of emergency that he has declared in Oregon,
over the objections of the state’s governor and its citizens.
Americans were focused on Britney Spears’s meltdown and the question of
who fathered Anna Nicole’s baby, the New York Times editorialized about
this shift: “A disturbing recent phenomenon in Washington is that laws
that strike to the heart of American democracy have been passed in the
dead of night … Beyond actual insurrection, the president may now use
military troops as a domestic police force in response to a natural
disaster, a disease outbreak, terrorist attack or any ‘other
this as a clear violation of the Posse Comitatus Act - which was meant
to restrain the federal government from using the military for domestic
law enforcement. The Democratic senator Patrick Leahy says the bill
encourages a president to declare federal martial law. It also violates
the very reason the founders set up our system of government as they
did: having seen citizens bullied by a monarch’s soldiers, the founders
were terrified of exactly this kind of concentration of militias’ power
over American people in the hands of an oppressive executive or faction.
Of course, the
United States is not
vulnerable to the violent, total closing-down of the system that
followed Mussolini’s march on Rome
or Hitler’s roundup of political prisoners. Our democratic habits are
too resilient, and our military and judiciary too independent, for any
kind of scenario like that.
other critics are noting, our experiment in democracy could be closed
down by a process of erosion.
It is a
mistake to think that early in a fascist shift you see the profile of
barbed wire against the sky. In the early days, things look normal on
the surface; peasants were celebrating harvest festivals in Calabria in 1922; people were shopping and going
to the movies in Berlin
in 1931. Early on, as WH Auden put it, the horror is
always elsewhere - while someone is being tortured, children are
skating, ships are sailing: “dogs go on with their doggy life … How
everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster.”
turn away quite leisurely, keeping tuned to internet shopping and
American Idol, the foundations of democracy are being fatally corroded. Something has changed
profoundly that weakens us unprecedentedly: our democratic traditions,
independent judiciary and free press do their work today in a context
in which we are “at war” in a “long war” - a war without end, on a
battlefield described as the globe, in a context that gives the
president - without US citizens realizing it yet - the power over US
citizens of freedom or long solitary incarceration, on his say-so alone.
That means a
hollowness has been expanding under the foundation of all these still-
free-looking institutions - and this foundation can give way under
certain kinds of pressure. To prevent such an outcome, we have to think about the
What if, in a
year and a half, there is another attack - say, God forbid, a dirty
bomb? The executive can declare a state of emergency. History shows
that any leader, of any party, will be tempted to maintain emergency
powers after the crisis has passed. With the gutting of traditional
checks and balances, we are no less endangered by a President Hillary
than by a President Giuliani - because any executive will be tempted to
enforce his or her will through edict rather than the arduous,
uncertain process of democratic negotiation and compromise.
What if the
publisher of a major US
newspaper were charged with treason or espionage, as a rightwing effort
seemed to threaten Keller with last year? What if he or she got 10
years in jail? What would the newspapers look like the next day?
Judging from history, they would not cease publishing; but they would
suddenly be very polite.
only a handful of patriots are trying to hold back the tide of tyranny
for the rest of us - staff at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who
faced death threats for representing the detainees yet persisted all
the way to the Supreme Court; activists at the American Civil Liberties
Union; and prominent conservatives trying to roll back the corrosive
new laws, under the banner of a new group called the American Freedom
Agenda. This small, disparate collection of people needs everybody’s
help, including that of Europeans and others internationally who are
willing to put pressure on the administration because they can see what
unrestrained by real democracy at home can mean for the rest of the
We need to
look at history and face the “what ifs”. For if we keep going down this
road, the “end of America” could come for each of us in a different
way, at a different moment; each of us might have a different moment
when we feel forced to look back and think: that is how it was before -
and this is the way it is now.
accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in
the same hands … is the definition of tyranny,” wrote James Madison. We
still have the choice to stop going down this road; we can stand our
ground and fight for our nation, and take up the banner the founders
asked us to carry.
Guardian News and Media Limited 2007