Terror and the Police State

Terror and the Police State is a book in the course of production.  It comes at a time when terrorism is prompting governments to seek more powers and to reduce the rights of their people.  It is an accepted paradox that such reductions of rights are the first steps taken by those who wish to create a police state.  I am not saying that we are seeing that now, but I am saying that we should not be panicked or rushed into striking out at our inheritance of eight centuries of what we know as the rule of law.

The first extract is from the opening chapter and sets out the terms of engagement of the book.

What is terror? Terror is extreme fear. If I feel terror, I feel an intense form of fear. When we talk of ‘the Terror’, we speak of a government that engages in terrorism – it pursues terror (or extreme fear) – for political purposes. Some people think that terrorism has only recently become a big issue. They are wrong. It is as old as humanity. The book of Genesis is full of it, with God taking an active part in many forms of terror and with terrifying results, as you would expect from a being that is all powerful. The Oxford English Dictionary says that terrorism is ‘government by intimidation’ and a ‘policy intended to strike with terror those against whom it is adopted’. The first instance of terrorist in the Oxford is ‘applied to the Jacobins and their agents and partisans in the French Revolution’. The editor might just as well have referred to the Russian and German examples that we will come to, but in all such cases, including the Jacobins, the terrorists were people in the government.

Except for a limited form in a black hole like North Korea, we do not see terrorism much in government now, at least not in a form that governments own up to. Some might see the killing of suspected terrorists on foreign soil as an instance of terrorism in itself, but the answer to the question will depend on what side you are on and where you are standing. If you have just seen your family obliterated by a drone sent my a regime that you regard as being as evil as it is faithless, you will see yourself as a victim of terrorism that entitles if not requires you to respond in kind, and just as randomly.

We still plainly see terrorism in those who try to bring governments down and in religious fanatics who want to achieve either that objective or some religious purpose. At the time of writing – in mid 2014 – some fanatics under the label IS are pursuing terrorism to create an Islamic state. One of their ways of inducing extreme fear is by cutting people’s heads off in public. This was the preferred mode of terrorism employed by the Jacobin government in France just a few years after the white people from England set up their first colony here as a jail. The French preferred the guillotine because it was more humane and more efficient, although, as we will see, circumstances would drive them to look for quicker ways to kill, as would be the case with the SS in Germany.

Let us take two examples of terrorism from Russia under the Soviet Union. Yezhov, the butcher of the NKVD behind the Great Terror of the 1930’s, said: ‘Better too much than not enough…If an extra thousand people are shot in an operation, that is not such a big deal.’ It would be hard to find a more express contradiction of what a civilised nation takes to be the first premise of its criminal law or indeed its laws at large.

During that terror, two NKVD operatives came at night to take away the mother of two young girls, Nelly and Angelina. This was a scene repeated tens of thousands of times in what was then known as the Soviet Union. The goons told the girls that their mother was going away on a long work trip. She was breastfeeding one infant, and the goons told the other girls who were aged four and two that ‘you will not see her again’. Orlando Figes goes on in The Whisperers: ‘As Nelly was led away, she looked back to see her mother being hit across the face. The two sisters were sent to different homes – Nelly to a Jewish orphanage (on account of her darker looks) and Angelina to a nearby children’s home. It was NKVD policy to break up families of enemies of the people and to give the children a new identity.’

One reason for this policy was that, as the author later remarks, ‘orphanages became principal recruiting grounds for the NKVD’. Their Darwinian moral systems and strong collectives with weak family links showed that if you terrify people hard enough and long enough, you could leach them of their humanity and reduce them to your own level of brutality. On this occasion the mother was allowed by the NKVD to keep the baby at her breast. Her husband had been taken away some months before. She was now charged with failing to denounce her husband. Her crime was loyalty to humanity. She was sentenced to eight years in a labour camp at Kazakhstan, a Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland. After a ten day trip during which she had to fend off common criminals, she was separated from her baby for five years.

No parent can read this kind of story and stay calm, but we need to look at this brutality and inhumanity when we look at the forms of terror that were inflicted and suffered under other regimes. There is nothing abstract about terror, and the story of Nelly and Angelina is but one drop in the sea of misery that overcame all the Russias. We must never be seduced or even deflected by numbers. Nelly and Angelina were human beings not integers. We do after all have the teaching of the great English poet and man of God named John Donne – ‘Do not ask for whom we say our funeral rites – we say them for you.’

To remind us of the agony of real people, Christopher Hibbert gave the following list from the Liste Generale des Condamnés in the French Terror.

Jean Baptiste Henry, aged 18, a journeyman tailor, convicted of having sawn down a tree of liberty, executed 6 September 1793. Jean Julien, waggoner, having been sentenced to twelve years of hard labour, took it into his head to cry ‘Vive le Roi,’ was brought back to the Tribunal and condemned to death. Stephen Thomas Ogie Baulny, aged 46, was convicted of having entrusted his son, aged 14, to a Garde de Corps in order that he might emigrate, condemned to death and executed the same day. Henriette Francoise de Marboeuf, aged 55, widow of the ci-devant Marquis de Marboeuf, convicted of having hoped for the arrival of the Austrians and Prussians and of keeping provisions for them, convicted and executed the same day. Francoise Bertrand, aged 37, publican at Leure in the Department of the Cote–d’Or, convicted of having furnished to the defenders of the country sour wine injurious to health, convicted to death at Paris and executed the same day. Marie Angelique Plaisant, sempstress at Douai, convicted of having claimed that she was an aristocrat and that she did not care ‘a fig’ for the nation, condemned to death at Paris and executed the same day.

We see here something of what is random and surreal in what will come to be called a police state.

What is a police state? It is a nation or state in which government claims the right to control all aspects of public and private life. The government is all powerful – there is no rule of law to check it. The executive makes law by its actions. Any purported legislature or judiciary is sad and toothless. The most feared arm is the secret police. Sparta was the ancient model. 1984 is the fictional model; the Deutsche Democratische Republik was one of its most fearful modern examples.

What is a revolution? We are here talking of revolutions in government. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a political ‘revolution’ as ‘a complete overthrow of the establishment in any country or state by those who were previously subject to it; a forcible substitution of a new ruler or form of government’. Since the ‘complete overthrow’ will invariably be effected by the use of force or the threat of force, the short definition for our purposes is a ‘forcible substitution of a new form of government’. The French and Russian Revolutions are examples. When we speak of a coup d’état (‘a blow at the State’) we are usually referring to a forcible change in the personnel at the top of the government, and not in the system of government itself.

Historians have been reluctant to describe the accession to power in Germany by the Nazis as a ‘revolution’. There is, however, no doubt that force, both applied and threatened, was an essential part of their winning of power, and that the consequences were on any view revolutionary in at least the popular sense of that term.

You can see the difficulty in talking of a revolution as something that can have a purpose or an aim, or something that can be betrayed. A revolution is not a thing. The word ‘revolution’ here is a label that may be applied to a series of events which later can be seen to have produced consequences by means that satisfy the criteria that we have identified. Revolutions like wars have two sides. What the revolutionary process looks like will depend on what side you are on. Nelson Mandela was once a terrorist, but since his side won, we are allowed to accept him, and properly so, as one of the most revered statesmen of the world. The terrorists of Northern Ireland did not win and are still seen by many as terrorists. One man’s insurgent or terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, liberator, servant of God, or martyr. Which side the Taliban or IS may come down on will turn on the result of their wars and from what side you are looking at them.

Since a police state violates what we know as the rule of law, we should say what we mean by that term. It is fundamental to every part of this book. The great English jurist A.V. Dicey identified three elements of the rule of law during the reign of Queen Victoria. Before saying what they were, Dicey referred to the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville. He found England to be ‘much more republican’ than Switzerland. It was said by de Tocqueville that:

The Swiss seem to still look upon associations from much the same point of view as the French, that is to say, they consider them as a means of revolution and not as a slow and sure method of obtaining redress of wrong ….The Swiss do not show the love of justice which is such a strong characteristic of the English. Their courts have no place in the political arrangements of the country, and exert no influence on public opinion. The love of justice, the peaceful and legal introduction of the judge into the domain of politics, are perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of a free people.

The first element of the rule of law identified by Dicey was the absolute supremacy of regular law over arbitrary power. This was the supremacy of law over people. Aristotle had, after all, said that ‘the rule of law is preferable to that of any individual.’ This explains the reaction against the English Law Lords in the decision in Shaw v DPP, where they claimed a residuary power for judges to enforce morals by law, with H.L.A. Hart comparing the decision with German statutes of the Nazi period which condemned anyone who was deserving of punishment according to the ‘fundamental conception of a penal law and sound popular feeling’.

The second aspect of Dicey was equality before the law, or the equal subjection of all classes to the ordinary laws of the land.

The third part is characteristic of the common law. Those brought up in the English tradition of laws being derived from precedents found in previous cases – the common law – see the constitution as resulting from that process that has made the ordinary law of the land. The constitution is not the source, but the consequence, of the rights of individuals. The constitution is itself part of the common law. The Europeans tend to see it the other way around – they see private rights deriving from public institutions. Dicey said, ‘Our constitution, in short, is a judge-made constitution, and it bears on its face all the features, good and bad, of judge made law’. He went on to say that, ‘the Habeas Corpus acts declare no principle and define no rights, but they are for practical purposes worth a hundred constitutional articles guaranteeing individual liberty’. This is as close to dogma as the common law gets.

You can see how offensive a police state is to someone brought up in the Anglo-American tradition. A police state is a living violation of the rule of law that underwrites western civilisation.

We need now briefly to state the historical background for the three reigns of terror or police state that we are considering in this book.

The second extract is from a much larger chapter dealing with the banality or the surreal in the three reigns of terror considered in the book – that of the French and Russian Revolutions and that of Nazi Germany.

Kings do not have surnames – they do not need them. This historical fact did not suit the new regime in France. It had a fine taste for bureaucratic order and protocol. When the Convention arraigned the former King Louis XVI, he had to be given a name. They found reason in the history of the Capetian line to call him Louis Capet. (Cromwell and his men had done much the same for Charles Stuart one and a half centuries beforehand.) Louis said ‘I am not called Capet, and the name has never been more than a sobriquet’, but the trial went ahead against him under that name.

When the Duke of Orleans presented at the relevant office to enrol to vote, he said that his name was Louis-Philippe-Joseph d’Orleans. ‘That cannot be. It is a feudal name forbidden by law.’ There was a polite discussion that they could not resolve. He was referred to the council of his commune (our local town or city council). ‘These councils alone have the right to give a family name to citizens who do not possess one, such as bastards and foundlings. So, nameless citizen, proceed to the Hotel de Ville, and when the Commune has come to a decision about you, come back and see us and you will be allowed to vote.’ The Duke of Orleans, which he no longer was, took himself off to the Hotel de Ville where the Grand Council was in full session. They settled on the name ‘Equality’ (Égalité). When he made a face, the still nameless citizen was offered an insulting Roman name. So, he became Philippe Égalité, but acceptance into the fold did not bring immunity. When the wheel turned, as wheels do, the ci-devant duc was guillotined under his revolutionary name, and not the ‘feudal’ title.

The English Marxist historian Doctor Christopher Hill wrote a book called The World Turned Upside Down about radical ideas coming out of the revolution in the mid-seventeenth century that ushered in the protestant ethic. The French Revolution had its full quota, and their manifestation could be bizarre. The alternation between the banal and the surreal gave some a sense of release, and just added to the uncertainty and insecurity of the rest of the world turned upside down world.

About ten years later the wheel turned again. It turned on those who had unleashed the guillotine on monarchs and nobles. A Corsican soldier of the most shabby gentility came to be crowned emperor – in fact he would crown himself in the presence of the pope. It was a riot of pomposity, because Napoleon believed that it is by such baubles that men are ruled, what Francois Furet described as ‘Carolingian kitsch’. All of the ‘honours of Charlemagne’ were there, the golden crown, the sword, the imperial globe. After the sovereign couple received the triple unction, ‘the solemn mass began, during which the insignia were blessed – the hand of justice, the ring, and the sceptre – and the coronation, properly speaking, began. Napoleon ascended to the altar, took the crown, and placed it on his own head. Then he took the crown of the empress and stood before her and put it on her head; meanwhile the pope recited a prayer used by the archbishop of Reims at the coronation of the kings of France.’ The pope was little more than a witness, and the new emperor did not believe one word of it.

The word ‘banal’ comes from France – curiously, a banalite was one of those feudal obligations that led the peasants to burn down chateaux. The dictionary says that ‘banal’ means trite, trivial, or commonplace, but there is often a suggestion of emptiness or hollowness behind feigned or usurped importance that is pejorative. This may have been behind the observation in Fowler’s Modern English Usage that ‘we should confine banal and banality, since we cannot get rid of them, to occasions when we want to express a contempt deeper than any of the English words can convey.’

Hannah Arendt wrote a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil. She explained the sub-title as follows:

When I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to the phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial. Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing could have been further from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain’. Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realised what he was doing……He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness – something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is ‘banal’, and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace.

These observations derive from intellectual integrity, and they are of great moment. Arendt had previously said to the same effect: ‘The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are terribly and terrifyingly normal.’ Eichmann was no devil or demon; he was just human, and the trouble for us is that he was ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’. Those who do not accept that Eichmann was just human, and that there is a little of Eichmann in all of us, are seeking to impose some kind of grid or cattle pen over humanity and are at risk of falling into the error that fed the derangement of people like Stalin and Hitler.

We might here note the matter of fact assessment of R R Palmer on Carrier, the man who drowned priests by the boat load in the Vendee, and after being at fist applauded, was later guillotined for what we would now describe as war crimes.

Carrier, it may safely be said, was a normal man with average sensibilities, with no unusual intelligence or strength of character, driven wild by opposition, turning ruthless because ruthlessness seemed to be the easiest way of solving a difficult problem.

As Arendt said, ‘it was sheer thoughtlessness…that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.’

It is in the French Revolution more than under Stalin and Hitler that we see people with little or no prior experience of government trying both to govern and lay down a system of government, each of which tasks was beyond most if not all of them. These tasks require more than a lifetime of experience – they require generations of history, centuries even. It is here in France during the revolution that we see ordinary people placed in a whole new world doing their best in good faith to stare down chaos and the void and just getting slowly more out of their depth until they run out air.

We see this all the time. If you have any experience with what we now call risk management, you will know that your biggest worry is the functionary that is getting out of their depth and either does not see that or is incapable of admitting it. These are simple, obvious facts of life, but historians tend to forget that most humans are just that – ordinary human beings – when they consider how some of them reacted when the volcano that was France erupted. When looking back on how events unfolded, with the curse of ignorance and the false hope of hindsight, we may not be surprised to see that some ordinary people did some things that they would do very differently if they had their time again. There was no procedure or manual telling Robespierre how he might react: the script had not been written because no one had seen anything remotely like it before. And we might also remember that if the French could at least look back on the experiences of both England and America in their revolutions, the Russians had the benefit of the lot, and made a worse mess than anyone.

If France was short on heroes for its revolution, it was long on characters. Here is the last Bourbon king on Marat in the National Convention: ‘Then on the benches opposite me, I saw a sickly little man with a pale and hideous visage shaking with convulsive movements; he had a coloured handkerchief around his head and was wearing a threadbare greatcoat, which was very dirty and covered with stains. This man was Marat. It was he in his odious paper so impudently entitled The People’s Friend, demanded every morning that three hundred thousand heads should roll to have done with the enemies of liberty.’ As we might expect, Hippolyte Taine was a little more graphic: ‘At the mere sight of Marat, filthy and slovenly, with his livid frog-like face, round, gleaming and fixed eyeballs, bold maniacal stare and steady monotonous rage, common sense rebels; people do not accept for their guide a homicidal bedlamite.’

Well, vast numbers of the people did just that, and when Charlotte Corday took him out with one strike in his bath, most of France mourned. The funeral rites were frightful. The court painter, David who was always on call for a hero, caught the martyr in death. The genius of embalming plied his art, and Marat lay in state on a bed, after the putrefaction had been checked, at the Cordeliers. The bed was set against tricolour draperies with two stones from the Bastille engraved ‘Ami du Peuple’. A crown of oak-leaves was put on his brow to show his immortal genius, and flowers were strewn on the bier. Far below – according to a truly ghastly painting of the scene –the laurels of his martyrdom were reverently displayed – the porphyry bath, the bloody robe, and the inkwell and paper. His writings were displayed in the chapel. Vinegar and perfume were used to quell the stench, which was possibly more vibrant in death than in life.

A torchlight procession allowed the people of Paris to strew flowers on the heavenly whitened visage. His immortality was assured and celebrated. One orator prayed: ‘Let the blood of Marat become the seed of intrepid republicans.’ His ascension was as assured as that of Christ, and his immortal heart was cut out and put in an agate urn and hung from the vault of the Cordeliers to swing over the heads of his inadequate successors. Then the renaming started. Montmartre became Mont-Marat, and one of Napoleon’s best generals, Murat, a future king of Naples, signed up for the cult by changing his name. Then when the wheel turned a few years later, some equally repellent people called the Gilded Youth dug up the remains of Marat and threw them into the sewer.

The banality could be childlike in the most revolting instances. A Temporary Commission of twenty was set up to oversee the execution of the orders to punish Lyon. This task would be brutal. It would in truth involve mass murder. As Professor Palmer drily observed, ‘The obscure persons thus raised to power were not above a common frailty: they wished to be recognized.’ They needed a uniform. They were not modest, and they forbade anyone else from wearing their chosen colour, bleu.

For each one, out of public funds, were ordered to be exact: a blue coat with red collar, blue trousers with leather between the legs, breeches of deerskin, an overcoat and leather suitcase, a cocked hat with tricolour plume, a black shoulder-belt, various medals, six shirts, twelve pocket handkerchiefs, muslin for six ordinary cravats, black taffeta for two dress cravats, a tricoloured belt, six cotton nightcaps – would they be wearing these on duty? – six pairs of stockings, two pairs of shoes, kid gloves a l’espagnole, boots a l’americaine, bronzed spurs, saddle pistols and a hussar’s saber.

That anecdote stands for much of this whole book. We may be sure that these worthies were normal, indeed terrifyingly normal. When so attired were they part of the crowd that savoured the sight of French people like themselves being cut down by cannon fire one cricket pitch away from them before being finished off by professional soldiers who were then free to rob the corpses? With what relish or pride, both so evident from their choice of costume, did they relate such events to their wives and children over Sunday dinner?

‘Banal’ is hardly the word here, because we do not want to believe in the results, and we do not want to ask whether we are different or better from other ‘normal’ people. The moonshine over the funeral of Marat would come within most people’s understanding of the word ‘banal’ if not surreal, but it might all pale beside the torch-lit Wagnerian rites for the assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the former head of the Gestapo, and a man of incomparable evil. There was one funeral in Prague and another in the Reich Chancellery. Himmler gave the eulogy. Hitler attended and comforted the children of the martyr and placed his decorations on his funeral pillow – the highest grade of the German Order, the Blood Order Medal, the Wound Badge in Gold, and the War Merit Cross First Class with Swords. Privately, Hitler said that Heydrich had been an idiot to expose his person, but he then set about the reprisals. A Czech town called Lidice was chosen at random and destroyed. Adult males were shot. Females were sent to camps and the correct looking children were sent for Aryan adoption to bolster the race. The deceased would have been greatly moved.

More and shorter extracts will follow in later posts, with details of eventual publication.

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