Yesterday I wrote about the emergency our now-fragile republic faces as the Bush administration appears to be using the time-tested tactics of dictators
throughout the last century to close down an open society. I wrote yesterday about how we are one arrest away away from the 'after' in the 'before and after' of a closed society; the reasoning, you recall, is that the White House's position is that the President can designate anyone as an 'enemy combatant' ? you, me, the owners of your local bookstore or the head of your local antiwar or environmental group ? and lock you up in solitary confinement for months or years without ever filing charges. Notably, the Bush White House is proposing that the next Attorney General be the man who defended the legal position that the President can have this power over US citizens ? in the case of Padilla
. While Padilla is not a good guy, the precedent has been set and, as Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who represents the detainees, points out, it can now be used against you and me. It is profoundly dangerous that the man who upheld the President's authority to do this is now being presented as a moderate AG choice and could soon be in the position of enforcing the law of the land.
Today's news ? look at the front page of AOL ? shows a recognizable shock moment in the annals of a closing society. A very ordinary-looking American student was tasered by police when he asked a question of John Kerry about the impeachment of George Bush. His arms were pinned and as he tried to keep speaking he was shocked ? in spite of begging not to be hurt. A stunning piece of footage but unfortunately, historically, a very familiar and even tactical moment.
It is an iconic turning point and it will be remembered as the moment at which America either fought back or yielded. This violence against a student is different from violence against protesters in the anti-war movement of thirty years ago because of the power the President has now to imprison innocent US citizens for months in isolation. And because, as I have explained elsewhere, we are not now in a situation in which 'the pendulum' can easily swing back. That taser was directed at the body of a young man, but it is we ourselves, and our constitution, who received the full force of the shock.
Anyone who has read my chapter "Recast Criticism as 'Espionage' and Dissent as 'Treason'" will see this moment for the horrific harbinger it is. I argue in The End of America that strategists using historical models to close down an open society start by using force on 'undesirables,' 'aliens,' 'enemies of the state,' and those considered by mainstream civil society to be untouchable; in other times they were, of course, Jews, Gypsies, Communists, homosexuals. Then, once society has been acculturated to that use of force, the 'blurring of the line' begins and the parameters of criminalized speech are extended ? the definition of 'terrorist' expanded ? and the use of force begins to be deployed in HIGHLY VISIBLE, STRATEGIC and VISUALLY SHOCKING WAYS against people that others see and identify with as ordinary citizens. The first 'torture cellars' used by the SA, in Germany between 1931 and 1933 ? even before the National Socialists gained control of the state, during the years when Germany was still a parliamentary democracy ? were informal and widely publicized in the mainstream media. Few German citizens objected because those abused there were seen as 'other' ? and even though the abuse was technically illegal. Even in 1931 there were German human rights lawyers and activists who tried to speak up for the abused detainees. But then, after this escalation of the use of force was accepted by the population, students, journalists, opposition leaders, and clergy were similarly abused during their own arrests. Within six months dissent was stilled in Germany.
What is the lesson for us, from this, and from other, closing societies, some of them democracies? You can have a working Congress or Parliament; newspapers; human rights groups; even elections; but when ordinary people start to be hurt by the state for speaking out, dissent closes quickly and the shock chills opposition very, very fast. Once that happens democracy has been so weakened that major tactical and strategic incursions ? greater violations of democratic process ? are far more likely. If there is dissent about the vote in Florida in this next Presidential election ? and the police are tasering voters' rights groups ? we will still have an election.
What we will not have is liberty.
We have to understand what time it is. When the state (and it is notable to me that the student was harmed in Florida, Jeb Bush land, and that the violence happened to be so well lit and so effectively filmed ? dissent is crushed when people see and understand the penalties for dissent) starts to hurt people for asking questions, we can no longer operate on the leisurely time of a strong democracy ? the 'Oh gosh how awful!' kind of time. It is time to take to the streets. It is time to confront those committing crimes against the constitution. The window has now dropped several precipitous inches and once it is closed there is no opening it without great and sorrowful upheaval.
We also need to understand from history that the temptation at a moment like this to grow more quiet ? to stay out of the line of fire ? is the wrong choice by far. History shows categorically that if citizens do not stand up now to confront and imprison the abusers, things do not get safer ? they get much more dangerous for ordinary people, activist or not.
I was scared when I wrote The End of America ? personally scared because the blueprint I was tracing in the summer of 2006 showed clearly that protesters and critics would start to be hurt within the year. When I told a dear friend that I was scared, he gently reminded me of the history I was reading: he asked, will things be scarier for you and the ones you love if you speak up now ? or if you are silent?
We don't just need to speak up now. We need to act. It is time to rebel in the name of the flag and the founders.