20 December 2005

What's next? Secret police?

Many years ago—as it turned out, Iraq invaded Kuwait during my time there—I traveled for a few weeks in Syria as part of an extended trip around the world. Another American I met there suggested that I read the travel advisory from the State Department. It turned out to be a rather dire warning about the dangers to be found in Syria, and stopped just short of forbidding travel there on safety grounds.

Turns out, though, that it was entirely false. Syria at the time was, for non-Israeli travelers, as safe a place as there was in the world. (It might not have been for Jewish travelers, but I met no Jews in Syria, so I can't say.) There was a very good reason why it was so safe. The place was crawling with secret police. As a result, the Syrians I met were welcoming and friendly in the usual Middle Eastern way, but only so long as I avoided talking about politics. Should I bring up anything political, people couldn't get away from me fast enough.

Now, the safety was only for some people, for foreigners and those who kept in their place. Those who objected to the governing regime tended to disappear. Those seen as a threat, such as the people of Hama, where the Muslim Brotherhood started to rise up against the Assad regime in 1982, paid a dire price. The Hama rebellion was brutally repressed, with tens of thousands dead, including many who had nothing to do with the uprising.

This is how totalitarian regimes operate. They promise, and to a large degree deliver, security to those who do not step out of line. Those who do not go along can eventually expect to find themselves arrested and detained indefinitely without charge, tortured until they confess, and then disappeared. The state, in order to identify those who are not in full compliance, spies on their citizens, using electronic means as well as secret agents.

The Bush administration is offering a less extreme version of this deal. They promise security, but in return ask that the executive be allowed to secretly and indefinitely jail, on nothing more than the President's say-so, anyone it pleases. They insist on being able to torture confessions from people, although they avoid that accusation by redefining whatever they happen to do as "not torture". Now they have admitted that they are secretly spying on US citizens, and tell us they are doing it to keep us safe.

This is how it starts. We trade "essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety", as Ben Franklin put it. And maybe we do, most of us, feel a little safer. So we trade a little more, and then yet more. And in the end we find that we have traded away our most precious and dearly-bought rights. But rather than the absolute security we thought we were buying we find instead that we live our lives in fear, fear of being identified as an enemy of the state.

This is why we must oppose the totalitarian impulses of the Bush administration. This is why we must insist on the President being subject to the rule of law. This is why we must fight to ensure that election results truly reflect the will of the people. This is why we must cherish and support a free and independent press.

Otherwise, we will wake up some day to find the Stars and Stripes, protected by a constitutional amendment, flying over a place that is no longer America.

Technorati Tags: , ,