Modern tyranny is terror management.
Dr. Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Well, first of all, I want to thank everyone who is still reading these posts. I know they are not easy, and not comforting by any means. And they surely aren’t about Tarot.
The end of the book, and my Freedom Fridays project is in sight, but honestly, this is the chapter I have been dreading. It is chilling me to my soul that current events seem to be in sync with each one of these chapters, and this one, to me, is the hardest. Especially since this week, it feels as if we are already toppling into the abyss.
So, deep breath, here goes.
First let’s take a look at what Dr. Snyder means by the quote above.
He defines terror management as: the exploitation of real, dubious, and simulated terror attacks to bring down democracy.
And it is the most pivotal, climactic tool in the playbook of those who would establish a tyranny. Let’s examine how effective it was in the past, and why it is almost certainly on our own horizon.
The Burning of the Reichstag
It’s the night of February 27, 1933. The place is Berlin, specifically the building of the German parliament. You could translate that to the complex that houses our Congress, our Capitol Building in Washington, DC.
The fire began around 9pm, and the building burned to the ground. We don’t know who set fire to that building. Dutch Communist Marinus van der Lubbe was convicted of arson and executed by guillotine, but the actual truth is still in dispute.
It doesn’t really matter. As Snyder explains:
What really matters is that this spectacular act of terror initiated the politics of emergency. Gazing with pleasure at the flames that night, Hitler said: “This fire is just the beginning.”
Whether or not the Nazis set the fire, Hitler saw the political opportunity: “There will be no mercy now. Anyone standing in our way will be cut down.”
The next day a decree suspended the basic rights of all German citizens, allowing them to be “preventively detained” by the police.
In response to Hitler’s claim that the fire was an act of terrorism perpetrated by Germany’s enemies, the election that was held only one week later gave the Nazi party a huge win. Thus emboldened by their democratic legitimacy, they began to round up opposition groups, sending them to the inaugural concentration camps.
And two weeks later, the new parliament passed an “enabling act” that allowed Hitler to “rule by decree.” Germany then remained in a state of emergency for the next twelve years. A state that resulted in unspeakable horrors and the deaths of millions of people.
Vladimir Putin, object of The Occupant’s disquieting bromance, came to power in a very similar manner, although, Snyder writes, rather more creatively. Not surprising, since Putin was a high ranking, dedicated professional in the Soviet Secret Police, the KGB, and then went on to lead the FSB — the post-communism version of the KGB.
Although Putin was relatively unknown, the first post-Soviet President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, chose him to be acting prime minister, less than six months before he (Yeltsin) would abruptly resign from office, and leave Putin in charge.
What happened between August and December 31, 1999 to catapult this obscure nobody into leading the entire country?
Within a month of his August 1999 appointment, a series of buildings were bombed in Russian cities, “evidently by the Russian secret state police,” according to Snyder. “Its officers were arrested by their own colleagues with evidence of their guilt; in another case the speaker of the Russian parliament announced an explosion a few days before it took place.”
In the ensuing chaos, Putin declared a war of revenge against the Muslims of Chechnya who he scapegoated, promising to “rub them out in the shithouse.”
The shell-shocked Russian public loved his tough-guy response and his popularity soared. And in March, following Yeltsin’s resignation and Putin’s subsequent temporary installment as leader, there were still more attacks. Were they real or manufactured? Doesn’t matter; he won the presidential election.
Like dominoes, one after another, various acts of rebellion and violence (some real, some questionable) resulted in Putin’s further consolidation of power. In 2002, after a bloody incident at a Moscow theatre, he took the opportunity to seize control of private television. In 2004, in another incident that Snyder deems “strange circumstances that suggested a provocation,” Putin put an end to elected regional governors.
“Thus,” Snyder warns, “Putin’s rise to power and his elimination of two major institutions — private television and elected regional governorships — were enabled by the management of real, fake, and questionable terrorism.”
And under his leadership, Russia has continuously deployed covert operations to subvert other democracies, including our own. It was Russian hackers in 2015 who took over the French network of 11 channels, TVMonde, pretended to be ISIS, and then broadcast terrorist messages to France.
In 2016, Russia orchestrated another horrific drama, designed to embolden right-wing, reactionary organizations and destabilize a democratic, free nation.
Having started a bombing campaign in Syria targeting civilians, Russia ensured there was a cataclysmic torrent of Syrian refugees into Europe. Then, Russia pounced on Germany’s agreement to accept half a million of these desperate asylum-seekers. The final move was when Russian media concocted a story that a Russian child had momentarily gone missing from her family while visiting Germany, and then was serially raped by Muslim immigrants.
Even when local police insisted no such atrocity had ever taken place, the damage was done. The extremists insisted it was a cover-up, and even Russia’s diplomats joined in.
I could continue to recount Putin’s evils, but will spare you. I suggest, though, that you might want to check out Alex Gibney’s brilliant, deeply disturbing new HBO special, Agents of Chaos. And if you haven’t by now, you really should invest in the book being discussed, Dr. Timothy Snyder’s slender, essential piece of 21st Century wisdom. (His other works are a marvel as well).
So Here We Are
It’s hard to know where to begin. For the last four years, The Occupant has shredded the democratic norms of our country, while making no secret of his admiration of and desire to emulate the most brutal men in power today. Snyder notes:
When the American president and his national security adviser speak of fighting terrorism alongside Russia, what they are proposing to the American people is terror management [defined above].
The Russian recap of the first telephone call between the president and Vladimir Putin is telling: The two men “shared the opinion that it is necessary to join forces against the common enemy number one: international terrorism and extremism.”
One wonders who Putin thinks the terrorists are, particularly since we now know that Russian military intelligence was offering bounties to Taliban militants in Afghanistan for killing American troops. And, while he knew about this for several months before the story broke, The Occupant has yet to comment.
It’s not hard to connect the dots between the rush to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the Supreme Court, The Occupant’s declaration on Wednesday that “I think this [election] will end up in the Supreme Court. And I think it’s very important we have nine justices,” and his ongoing campaign to destroy public faith in the election.
Just for fun, throw in his deliberate repression of information on the severity and scope of the pandemic (which he is continuing to obfuscate), so that the public needs to vote by mail in order to be safe, while having his hand-picked crony busily dismantling the United States Postal Service; and all the while declaring, that mass voting by mail will result in widespread election fraud, an assertion that, in fact, is in complete contrast to all evidence.
And he knows it.
Oh, and while we are at it, just to add a little je ne sais quoi to this recipe for disaster, let’s observe his unfailing delight in throwing gasoline onto the fires of every tense showdown in the streets. He has ignored the opposition of local governments, instead sending in heavily armed, unmarked military troops to harass, provoke, and even detain without just cause otherwise peaceful protestors.
And the cherry on top, of course, is — not for the first time, but in especially overt language this week — that he is not willing to commit to a peaceful transfer of his office if he is defeated in the November election.
What fun his handlers and enablers have had, trying to clean up after that! But they can’t make it go away, because this message has been consistent for quite some time.
So, I will confess to you that the spectre of an “October Surprise” in this already incalculably high stakes election haunts me. He has organized the set-up as perfectly as if Putin himself was offering his advice.
Dr. Snyder would probably be horrified, but I asked my beloved astrologer friend, Elisabeth Grace, to offer any insight on this. She replied:
I agree with your spider sense that there is potential for all things martial, sponsored by Mars in Aries squaring Jupiter, Saturn and Pluto in “Powers that Be” Capricorn…
Being prepared for any extremes of authoritarian control is not unreasonable. I’m not a psychic, so I don’t know how it will all unfold — but I think it’s fair to assume — just from observing past behavior that the incumbent and his enablers are not inclined to abide by the usual rules of engagement.
Let’s not be fearful, though — channel your inner FDR.
I agree, particularly her final bit of advice.
We must dig deep and be brave. In this critically important 18th lesson, Snyder concludes:
For tyrants, the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission.
For us, the lesson is that our natural fear and grief must not enable the destruction of our institutions. Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving.
It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, precisely when it seems most difficult to do so.
Our unity, our courage and clarity, our ability to stay grounded and connected, our willingness to help one another, and not turn on each other are going to be crucially important.
In fact, putting together ALL the previous lessons, these components may mean the difference between forfeiting our country or standing down the wave of the coup that looks like it is already breathing down our necks.
To review those previous lessons, here are the links:
Introduction to Freedom Fridays
Freedom Fridays, Lesson One: Do Not Obey In Advance
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Two: Defend Institutions
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Three: Beware the One-Party State
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Four: Take Responsibility for the Face of the World
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Five: Remember Professional Ethics
Freedom Fridays, Lesson Six: Be Wary of Paramilitaries
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 7: Be Reflective If You Must Be Armed
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 8: Stand Out
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 9: Be Kind to Our Language
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 10: Believe in Truth
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 11: Investigate
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 12: Make Eye Contact and Small Talk
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 13: Practice Corporeal Politics
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 14: Establish a Private Life
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 15: Contribute to Good Causes
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 16: Learn from Peers in Other Countries
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 17: Listen for Dangerous Words