When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh.
When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.
Dr. Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Thanks for hanging in there with this series, my friends. It is not happy or pleasant, and, as you may imagine, it can be disheartening to write.
But I am continuing to do so (to a dwindling audience, it seems) because this is where I can exercise my free speech, and so, do my bit to push back. As the Washington Post declares, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” This is where I will shine my little bit of light, even as gloomy as the subject matter may be.
Today’s topic is especially disturbing because of so many current events which seem to be moving us in this direction.
The impact of giving our domestic police military-grade equipment is controversial. I am absolutely in favor of our law enforcement personnel being as well-protected as possible, and armed well enough to handle the complex engagements they face on today’s streets.
I will never forget the images of tank brigades rolling through the suburbs of Boston after the marathon attack. The martial law that locked down one of our largest, most diverse cities, and the combat warfare troops that poured through the streets was unprecedented.
Was this a justifiable response? Is this the new face of law enforcement? Or was it a dress rehearsal for something more sinister that may be waiting in the wings? When we are preparing for all-out war in the streets, might we possibly be complicit in enabling it?
I don’t know. I don’t have the answers for that. But it is worth asking, I think.
Who Are the Enforcers?
Dr. Snyder tackles this concern from a historic perspective, explaining how “most governments, most of the time, seek to monopolize violence.” In other words, where there is a rule of law in place, only the government can legitimately use force, and that force is only used lawfully.
This, he points out, is the only way that the forms of politics we take for granted can function. Otherwise, he writes:
It is impossible to carry out democratic elections, try cases at court, design and enforce laws, or indeed manage any of the other quiet business of government when agencies beyond the state also have access to violence.
For just this reason, people and parties who wish to undermine democracy and the rule of law create and fund violent organizations that involve themselves in politics.
Such groups can take the form of a paramilitary wing of a political party, the personal bodyguard of a particular politician — or apparently spontaneous citizens’ initiatives, which usually turn out to have been organized by a party or its leader.
He points to violent right wing groups such as Romania’s fascist Iron Guard death squads, and the Nazi sympathizers of Hungary’s Arrow Cross.
And of course there were the most notorious and deadly Nazi SS and SA. They were the brutal storm troopers that began as a special security detail that went about clearing the public halls of opponents during Hitler’s rallies.
As Hitler’s true believers, their thuggery soon spread from the auditoriums to the streets, creating a climate of fear that ushered the Nazi Party into power in 1932 and 1933. And of course, they ended up being the high command in charge of the genocide carried out in the concentration camps.
In Austria, the same tactics bred the local SA, who, Snyder explains, “quickly took advantage of the absence of the usual local authority to loot, beat, and humiliate Jews, thereby changing the rules of politics and preparing the way for the Nazi takeover of the country…
“During the Second World War,” he continues, “the SS extended the lawlessness it had pioneered in the camps to whole European countries under German occupation.
“The SS began as an organization outside the law, became an organization that transcended the law, and then ended up as an organization that undid the law.”
The Subtle Shift of Quicksand
The privatization of the military in the form of mercenary corporations has, doubtless, been useful in the ongoing U.S. and allied wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But such personnel may behave as if they are exempt from the Geneva Conventions and other forms of legal accountability, as we learned from the horrors of the Blackwater Security Company’s scandal.
In addition, the self-appointed militia “catching fucking beaners” along the Mexican border is a chilling new development that may have been quietly tolerated in the past, but is now being openly encouraged and empowered.
As controversial as these practices are, in and of themselves, Snyder points out that they additionally violate the premise that the government — our duly, democratically chosen representatives — should alone be in charge of who enforces and is accountable to the law.
To have small, private groups, answerable only to their internal systems and shareholders, running operations that recruit armed forces is a very new, and potentially poisonous development for our democracy.
You may recall multiple incidents during the campaign, when P45 encouraged violent retaliation against protestors at his public rallies, and even offered to pay any legal fees if necessary.
Dr. Snyder takes aim at this behavior, once again, from a context steeped in history:
What is novel is a president who wishes to maintain, while in office, a personal security force which during his campaign used force against dissenters.
As a candidate, the president ordered a private security detail to clear opponents from rallies but also encouraged the audience itself to remove people who expressed different opinions.
A protestor would first be greeted with boos, then with frenetic cries of “USA,” and then be forced to leave the rally. At one campaign rally, the candidate said, “There’s a remnant left over. Maybe get the remnant out. Get the remnant out.”
The crowd, taking its cue, then tried to root out other people who might be dissenters, all the while crying, “USA.”
The candidate interjected: “Isn’t this more fun than a regular boring rally? To me, it’s fun.”
This kind of mob violence was meant to transform the political atmosphere, and it did.
Violence still roils below the surface of every public P45 appearance.
The dog-whistle messages of exclusion and hate are “fun” for his followers. Is it any wonder that he likes to whip up bloodthirsty emotions, as he, himself, appears to be incapable of poise or self-control?
All it takes, according to Snyder, is for this ideological atmosphere to be incorporated into the training of armed guards. “These [will] first challenge the police and military, then penetrate the police and military, and finally transform the police and the military.”
Be wary, pay attention, and know who your local “enforcers” are. And, if given the chance, vote against further privatization and concealment of those who potentially could bear arms against a dissenting public.