Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Wolf Continued, Steps One Through Three

Naomi Wolf's central argument in her book The End of America is that George Bush is adopting ten steps typical of dictatorships everywhere. Having previously addressed the general merits of her approach, I will now look at the ten steps individually.

Step 1, Invoke an Internal and an External Threat. That threat, Wolf comments, can be real. Certainly Al-Qaeda and 9/11 are real. But Bush has shameless exploited that threat to consolidate power in his own hands. Wolf describes fearmongering by Hitler (at length) and by Mussolini, Stalin and Pinochet (more briefly). But, once again, she would do better with a more systematic approach. Do all dictators fearmonger? Just particularly harsh ones? Or mostly ones consolidating power?

Step 2, Establish Secret Prisons. By "secret" prisons, Wolf means prisons beyond the reach of the law. Obviously, the Bush Administration is doing just that. It is has set up a prison system in Guantanamo deliberately intended as a law-free zone, where routine humanitarian standards, fair trials, or indeed, the requirement for any sort evidence or justification for detention do not exist. Worse still are the truly secret prisons, the "black sites" and "extraordinary renditions." Comparisons with prison conditions, torture and mock trials under real dictatorships here are prefectly appropriate. Of course, there have been only a few hundred people in GTMO and fewer still in the black sites. Some people might dismiss such abuses as small-scale compared to real dictatorships, or even to our own past failings, such as the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Wolf argues that such prisons will necessarily proliferate (her word is "metastasize") and expand to include US citizens.

Arguably, the metastasis has begun, and on large scale. The Bush Administration is now seeking to pander to nativist elements in the Republican Party by being as heavy-handed as possible with illegal immigrants. Workplace raids are sweeping up hundreds of illegal immigrants at a time, and sometimes legal immigrants along with them. Helicopters are being used in the raids, and whole areas blocked off for detentions. Children come home from school to find their parents gone, or else, in the name of preserving families, children (some of them citizens) are also detained. The scale is comparable the the WWII internment, but conditions are far worse. The sheer numbers overwhelm any meaningful sort of due process. No one pretends that terrorism or security are involved. European visitors are not treated as brutally, but they have experienced shorter-term arbitrary detentions for matters as trivial as overstaying a visa years ago or even no reason but an immigration officer's discretion.

But the firewall protecting citzens from unaccountable prisons remains (mostly) intact. And, as Wolf comments, most Americans ultimately do not care unless citizens are detained. On the one hand, this lack of concern for our egregious violations of human rights is appalling. On the other hand, Americans are essentially right that a country may commit all manner of atrocities against foreigners while remaining a democracy so long as the firewall protecting citizens is maintained. Thus far, with the exceptions of Hamdi and Padilla, it holds.

Step 3, Develop a Paramilitary Force. All dictatorships have a political police of some sort, one that fills neither the military role of foreign wars not the police role of fighting crime, but is used for political intimidation. A systematic account of the sorts of political police different dictatorships have had, showing how they differed and what they had in common, would be extremely useful here. It would give us a much clearer idea of what to look out for. Alas, Naomi Wolf does not offer any meaningful sort of comparisons here. Instead, she describes how Mussolini and Hitler used street thugs to intimidate the opposition in the process of gaining power. Dictatorships do, in fact, sometimes use street thugs to do their dirty work. Street thugs have the advantage of plausible deniability. But they have the disadvantage of not being well enough organized or disciplined for the dictatorship to control very well. Sooner or later, dictators need some sort of personal army or secret police ("dreaded" is the usual adjective) to do their dirty work. Wolf does not discuss this subject at all.

She does offer one useful guideline -- she warns against private armies that are not accountable to "the people." But what does it mean for an army or police force to be accountable to the people? Wolf does not go into detail, but the Founders were clear on this point. A private army was one created, funded and controlled solely by the executive without legislative oversight. An accountable army was one created, funded and regulated by the legislature, though under the command of the executive. Hamilton discusses the distinction at length in Federalist Paper #24, and Jefferson's grievance listed in the Declaration of Independence include, "He [George III] has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies, without the consent of our legislatures."

So who would play the role of a secret police in George Bush's America? In the days of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI played something approximating that role. When the extent of FBI abuses became know, Congress passed laws to reign the FBI in. Those laws appear so far to have been successful. Abuses have been documented, but the FBI has refused to take part in torture, and the head of the FBI was prepared to resign over warrantless surveillance. The FBI as a whole appears to be uncorrupted. The Army, to judge from resistence from the JAG Corps to Bush's kangaroo courts at Guantanamo, also appears generally uncorrupted. Clearly the Founders were right; proper legislative control is the difference between an accountable and an unaccountable army (or police).

So what paramilitary do we have outside legislative control? Wolf suggests defense contractors, such as Blackwater. Defense contractors work for private, for-profit companies and, as such, avoid the sort of legislative regulation that regular armies and police have. Indeed (as Wolf points out), defense contractors are trying to be exempt from any laws at all. As Americans they are exempt for Iraqi law; as residents of Iraq they are exempt from American law; as civilians they are exempt from the Uniform Code of Military Justice; and as a military body they cannot be civilly sued. But, like secret prisons, defense contractors operate overseas and, despite their use in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I see no evidence that "Blackwater is coming home." Far from trying to create a secret police, the Bush Administration appears to be simply following their usual belief in privatization, and trying to increase the number of troops available in Iraq without resorting to a draft.

Thus far, it seems safe to say that the Bush Administration will not create a dictatorship precisely because they do not have a secret police, and no instrument short of that can be effective.

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