Not along ago, I visited a friend who is deeply plugged into the sound-the-alarm networks I sometimes find it easy to dismiss: Y2K! Avian flu! And so on. As soon as I walked in the door, she said this: “I’m worried that they’re going to declare a national emergency and suspend the next election—a coup.”
“No,” I said. “Dissent is at an all-time high. People are watching their every move. Even if they try it, that isn’t going to happen.”
My friend trusts my judgment (for some mysterious reason), so she looked relieved. Now, less than a month later, the contradictions are as dramatic as ever: the Senate compliantly confirms a soft-on-torture Attorney General while a CNN poll says that “A record number of Americans say that most members of Congress do not deserve to be re-elected.” And I still believe my response was correct. But now I want to do more to make sure.
I recently heard author Naomi Wolf in a remarkably unguarded interview on The Bat Segundo Show. She is making the lecture circuit, talk show and YouTube rounds promoting her book The End of America: Letter of Warning To A Young Patriot. (I haven’t read it, just a great many excerpts from it and glosses on it, which you, too may Google.)
Wolf identified ten steps that dictators have historically taken to destroy constitutional democracies:
1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy (such as the War on Terror)
2. Create a gulag (such as Guantanamo)
3. Develop a thug caste (such as Blackwater)
4. Set up an internal surveillance system (such as “warrantless wiretapping”)
5. Harass citizens’ groups (such as intelligence agencies’ infiltration of peace groups)
6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release (such as TSA watch lists and detentions of air passengers)
7. Target key individuals (such as right-wing pressure against progressive academics and government whistleblowers)
8. Control the press (such job losses for controversial journalists)
9. Dissent equals treason (you’ve heard the politicians say this by now, many times)
10. Suspend the rule of law (such as the expanded national emergency powers Congress granted the president this year).
In her interview, Wolf sounded so terrorized by her own perceptions, I felt she had lost her sense of proportion. For instance, she was outraged to find a TSA letter in her checked luggage, saying it had been searched. But the reality of air travel worldwide is that luggage is always subject to search. The letters are no doubt intended to remind travelers of this fact, further discouraging them from transporting weapons and other forbidden items. I’m writing this in a hotel, during the breaks at a conference; when I got here, I found one of those letters in my little suitcase too. I hate all the training in submission to authority we are being administered at airports now, but it’s a sign of the times, not a tendency specific to the U.S.
Like the friend I visited, Wolf thinks the Bush administration is looking as if it intends to stay in power past 2008—a perception based primarily on feelings, on hunches (e.g., I heard her say one piece of evidence is that they seem to be pursuing long-term policy objectives). Similarly, in defense of her ten steps idea—that tyrants always hit these same markers on their way to destroy democracy—she freely mixes examples from Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union and our own time and place. Yet in truth, while Nazi book-burnings and a few bonfires of Dixie Chicks CDs are both appalling, they are not equivalent. Nor does the fact that Wolf has found ten correlations that can be drawn (sometimes stretched) between the Bush administration’s antidemocratic actions and those of earlier outright coups constitute an infallible litmus test: tote up ten and wave goodbye to democracy. The world is full of correlations, and not all of them are causative.
The reason I don’t panic is that this much is still true: we have all the instruments of a strong authentic democracy within our grasp; the primary threat has been and remains our reluctance to use them. If we want to avoid the fate Wolf describes, all we have to do is stand up.
That’s why after hearing Wolf I went to the Web site of the American Freedom Campaign, a new group founded by Wolf and others from groups like MoveOn.org. There, I signed the American Freedom Pledge, endorsing ten remedies to the threats Wolf details:
Fully restore the right to challenge the legality of one’s detention, or habeas corpus, and the right of detained suspects to be charged and brought to trial.
Prohibit torture and all cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Prohibit the use of secret evidence.
Prohibit the detention of anyone, including U.S. citizens, as an “enemy combatant” outside the battlefield, and on the President’s say-so alone.
Prohibit the government from secretly breaking and entering our homes, tapping our phones or email, or seizing our computers without a court order, on the President’s say-so alone.
Prohibit the President from “disappearing” anyone and holding them in secret detention.
Prohibit the executive from claiming “state secrets” to deny justice to victims of government misdeeds, and from claiming “executive privilege” to obstruct Congressional oversight and an open government.
Prohibit the abuse of signing statements, where the President seeks to disregard duly enacted provisions of bills.
Use the federal courts, or courts-martial, to charge and prosecute terrorism suspects, and close Guantanamo down.
Reaffirm that the Espionage Act does not prohibit journalists from reporting on classified national security matters without fear of prosecution.
To establish the nonpartisanship of preserving liberty, note that Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, whose defense of free speech as a presidential candidate applies also to the whiplash-inducing positions he has taken (extremely anti-abortion and just as extremely pro-gun, for instance), has introduced H.R. 3835, a bill that would translate nine of these ten positions into law.
Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, True Majority and many other respected groups have endorsed the campaign. Now I have too, and so should you.