Hey Mr. Pinochet
You’ve sown a bitter crop
It’s foreign money that supports you
One day the money’s going to stop
They dance ALONE
"…dogs go on with
their doggy life …”
Fascist America, in 10
From Hitler to Pinochet and beyond, history
shows there are certain steps that any would-be dictator must take to destroy
constitutional freedoms. And, argues Naomi Wolf, George Bush and his administration
seem to be taking them all.
Tuesday April 24,
Last autumn, 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 difficult 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.
Because 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 recognise 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 realise.
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
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 civilisation". 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."
Creating a 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
2. Create a gulag
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 centre 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,
labour activists, clergy and journalists – are arrested and sent there as well.
This process 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 pro-democracy uprising.
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.
Gulags in history tend to metastasise,
becoming ever larger and more secretive, ever more deadly and formalised.
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.
But Americans 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
offences, 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 favour of Nazi ideology when making decisions.
3. Develop a thug caste
When leaders 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 terrorise citizens.
The Blackshirts roamed the Italian countryside beating up communists; the
Brownshirts staged violent rallies throughout Germany.
This paramilitary force is especially important in a democracy: you need citizens to
fear thug violence and so you need thugs who are free from prosecution[i].
The years 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
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
In Mussolini’s Italy,
in Nazi Germany, in communist East Germany,
in communist China
– in every closed
society – secret police spy on ordinary people and encourage neighbours to spy
on neighbours. The Stasi needed to keep only a minority of East
Germans under surveillance to convince a majority that they themselves were
In 2005 and 2006, when James Risen and Eric Lichtblau wrote
in the New York Times about a secret state programme 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
societies, this surveillance is cast as being about "national
security"; the true function is to keep citizens docile and inhibit their
activism and dissent.
5. Harass citizens’ groups
The fifth 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 favour 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.
Other 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 organisations 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
This scares 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
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 criticised Bush; and thousands of ordinary US
Professor 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
"I explained," 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
"That’ll do it," the
Anti-war 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.
Brandon 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.