What would it be like to live under I S? From what we know it is a police state run by fanatics by applying terror. That describes France under Robespierre, Russia under Stalin, and Germany under Hitler.
Terrorism is a broad church. There are arguments now about labels for killings by fanatics, if not lunatics, who appear to judge and hate people by applying labels to them. That very circle should make us wary about applying labels to the culprits. The recent atrocities in the U S and the U K could be described as crimes of hate – if you go in for labels. The U S attack was immediately described as ‘terrorist’; the U K attack was not. How significant was the religious claimed affiliation of the first culprit? How different might be the degrees of mental illness of the two culprits?
In a book called Terror and the Police State, Punishment as a Measure of Despair (Amazon, 2014), I sought to look at aspects of terror in the three regimes mentioned above – involving two of the most civilised nations in the world.
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 by 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 other 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.
What we see now is people who kill for a belief. These beliefs confer total certainty and demand total obedience. These killers kill for a belief that excludes tolerance for any contrary belief and any diversion or softening on other moral grounds. ‘I believe – therefore I kill’. Credo ergo caedo. They become what might be called credo killers. They are prepared to kill and die for a belief because that belief means more to them than life itself – or at least this life. The promise of eternal life is a real killer. How do you deal with a religious fanatic who wants to die and who only gets worse in prison?
I propose to post extracts about terrorism from that book. The role of terror in police states will be looked at under some or all of the following headings: Degradation; Scapegoats, suspicion, and proof; Surveillance; Denunciation; Fear; Popular courts and show trials; Propaganda, religion, and cults; Banality and the surreal; and The Horror.
You may be surprised just how much of the form and substance of the horrors of the twentieth century were prefigured in France at the end of the eighteenth. We need to get a more balanced view of what ‘terrorism’ means. There are of course differences between the terrorism practised in the three regimes dealt with in the book, and terrorism practised by bodies like the IRA, KKK, or I S, but there is also the risk that in responding to terrorist bodies like those, we undermine our own political and legal welfare, and we then head toward becoming a police state ourselves.
Here is the first such extract on degradation, and a nation does not have to live under terror to degrade itself. Just look at Donald Trump.
When Descartes famously asserted as the irrefutable basis of his metaphysics ‘I think, therefore I am’ – Cogito, ergo sum – some people of an acute philosophical bent may have ventured that the word ‘I’ might have to carry a lot of weight for that proposition to be sufficient to build a whole system on. If you assume that you know nothing, what might I mean? Well, that sort of thing might be OK in metaphysics, but it means nothing to most people. But according to Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon, it meant something to his principal targets, the Communists in Russia. There the secret police say that the word ‘I’ is ‘a grammatical fiction.’
It is not surprising to hear this asserted in a totalitarian state. The whole object of such a state is to ensure that the individual – the owner and the professor of the word ‘I’ – does not get in the way of the state. For them, the state is everything, and the individual – the ‘I’ – is nothing. The sense of self, or a person’s sense of worth – their dignity – is degraded in so many ways. Representatives of the state or the party belittle people. The very emptiness of the system and its slogans and symbols reduces people in their own eyes. Do decent people, even the most incurable addicts of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, really want to bow down before a broken cross, lightning runes, or a death’s head?
And people hear of or see things which debase or degrade them further. They hear of things that revolt them, and they go into blank denial. But they see or hear of things that make them complicit in a denial of truth, decency, and even life. A combination of terror and propaganda plays very ugly games with their minds, and they feel changed and demeaned. This in turn lowers their inclination to object, and so the downward cycle progresses, sometimes to the finite regress of suicide if the state does not get there first. By then they have bought into or they have been locked into crimes against humanity that would previously have been unthinkable to them. These regimes want to reduce their people to their level.
We associate the grosser forms of that cycle with Communist Russia under Stalin and with Nazi Germany under Hitler. It can give you a jolt to see the same forces at work in France during the Terror in 1793. Here is a long extract from Les Deux Amis (Two Friends) a primary source of major phases of the revolution in the form of a witness account that Carlyle was fond of drawing from.
A resident of Paris returns after ten months away.
So there I was packed into a stage coach surrounded by sinister faces, for at that moment, none but revolutionaries and government agents dared to move about. My mind was filled with the darkest presentiments and every stage on my way to Paris seemed to bring me nearer to the scaffold. As I thought of my wife and my children, I reproached myself for having left them so rashly and for not having embraced them yet once more before we parted. During the whole journey, the sight of a rock, an agreeable bit of landscape or a tree noticed by the wayside stamped on my mind a melancholy impress, which I cannot describe. I cherished a wish to see them again on my way back, saying to myself: ‘If I see them again, that will mean I have got out of Paris, and if I get out of Paris I shall see my wife and children once more.’
Just before reaching the modern Babylon, we changed horses and I got out to stretch my legs. I tried to banish the painful thoughts that haunted me, and went into an inn with the object of eating something if the burden of worry which oppressed me allowed me to do so. Sitting down at a table I picked up a newspaper lying there and, glancing over it, was instantly struck by a news item describing the execution of a man – a good man and one of my friends. He had been a notary and in that capacity, he had countersigned without reading it, as was the practice, a document whose contents were unknown to him. The Bloody Assize had condemned him to death. His hair had been cut and he was waiting to be executed, when he was snatched from the Guillotine to have his case examined afresh. The Convention had ordered this humane intervention, but the court presided over by Fouqier, who did not wish to be thought capable of condemning an innocent man, had the victim dragged to the scaffold and beheaded. And so Chaudot, a good, honest man, had the misery of drinking twice over the cup of death.
I was overwhelmed by this story. My strength failed me. I wanted to eat but could not get anything down. I raised a glass of wine to my lips, but had not the heart to drink. I hurried back to the diligence, where I remained plunged in a mood of the deepest melancholy from which I was aroused when one of my companions cried: ‘Here we are at the barrier. We’ve arrived.’ These words took me out of my lethargy, but they made me shudder. I put my head out of the window. It was dark, though it was scarcely eight o’clock.
What a change! Formerly – even when I left the city not so long ago – eight o’clock was the hour when Paris was most brilliantly illuminated, especially in the populous quarters. The light of innumerable street lamps blended with the blazing windows of the shops, where art and luxury had accumulated thousands of objects which vied with one another for elegance and value. It was the hour when the cafes were lit up and when the gleam of candles shone from every storey; when luxurious equipages passed one another swiftly in the streets on their way to theatres, concerts and balls in every quarter of the capital. Now, instead of this bustling life, these animated crowds, this impressive brilliance, a sepulchral silence filled all the streets of Paris. All the shops were already shut, and everyone hastened to barricade himself in his own home. One might suppose that the weeds of mourning had overspread all that breathed.
He got off at the coach terminus to go to the house of a friend. A sentry at the door took his packet off him because he should not carry anything at night. He was told to get it the next day from the guard-room. He set off for his friend whom he had not seen for 18 months. His friend had ‘turned Jacobin as a form of insurance’ and thought more of his own safety than of his friends.
It was nearly nine o’clock when I knocked at his door. This would not have been thought unduly late in normal times, but as it was, my knocking at the door at such an hour caused a panic among all the people who lived in the house. Domiciliary visits [raids on houses] were usually carried out at night and most of the crowd of citizens who thronged the prisons had been arrested after dark. The sound of a hammer caused every hearer to tremble, and my former friend seemed to be particularly alarmed when he saw me come into the house. Without asking after my health or inquiring what had happened to me and why I had come to Paris, he gave me to understand in curt, clear language that as I had left Paris some time back it would be dangerous for me to stay in the city and for him to offer me shelter. ‘What? It would be dangerous for me to stay the night?’ I asked. ‘Yes it would’ he replied, ‘if they came now to search the place, I would be a lost man.’
His friend had the courage to take him to a fruiterer who had a room to let, but the fruiterer would not take him at this hour, and his friend left him, warning him not to stay long on the pavement, unless he wanted to be ‘picked up by one of those patrols, who were usually reluctant to release persons who fell into their clutches.’ He went back to the fruiterer again who said that he had gone to bed early because he could not get candles in Paris.
‘Of course you have your passport?’ I said I would show it to him. Before reading it by the light of the lamp, he eyed me intently. ‘But this passport is not signed by the revolutionary committee of this section.’ ‘Yes, but I have only just arrived. The committee is not in session this hour and I cannot get them to sign it tonight. Give me a bed for tonight and tomorrow I will get up and I shall go and get the visa.’ ‘Impossible. Impossible, if they came tonight, and they visit furnished lodgings every night, I should be put in prison for having taken you in without your passport being duly visa-ed by a revolutionary committee. So, my dear sir, out of my house you go and at once.’ And suiting the action to the words he slammed the door in my face as civilly as my friend the Jacobin had done not long before.
Our hero is now seriously alarmed. He crosses important streets without meeting a soul. He hears a sound and huddles in a carriageway. Two files of pikemen (people carrying lances) are ‘escorting in their midst a carriage with windows closed, doubtless to silence the cries of the persons inside.’ They stopped outside a monastery now serving as a prison. The person in the carriage was a woman.
‘Inhuman monsters, after murdering the father, must you tear the mother from her children! No, I will not get out – you may kill me first. My own child whom I nursed. He will die. No… I will not get out. Oh, well, I will, but give up my child, my child….my child.’
The guards pulled her out and threw her into the prison. Cold rain was falling. He stayed two hours there in the cold, but at midnight his feet were cold and he was shivering. He moved and was instantly seized by a patrol. They took him to the coaching-office to check his arrival time. The register and package proved his story, and he was allowed to fall asleep on some parcels. When he woke, there was another employee there. He decided to abandon his mission to Paris. He asked when the next coach left. There was one at eight! He reserved a place, got a receipt, and went to a coffee house for some breakfast. He got into the coach to be sure of his place. The horses were put in. A policeman asked if their papers were in order. He showed his receipt.
‘Don’t want that!’ ‘What do you want?’ ‘Your passport.’ ‘Here it is.’ ‘You must get out. You are not in order.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘This passport has not been countersigned by the revolutionary committee of the section in which you lodged.’ ‘Citizen, I did not take lodgings anywhere. I arrived at seven and finished my business at eight. I spent the night in this office and now I want to go.’ ‘Never mind about your business. No one can leave Paris without having his passport visa-ed by a revolutionary committee. The orders of the Commune about this are perfectly clear. The committee may be in possession of details about you and it is proper for you to show your face to the persons charged with proving your identity.’
He got out. The coachman ill-temperedly whipped his horses and took off with the price of the seat and his small parcel of clothes. At least in daylight, he was able to get into a lodging house. He asked his hostess in what section he was so that he could get his passport visa-ed. She told him where to go and not to come back without a visa.
I then set out. Daylight and the sight of many people moving freely in the streets restored my nerves to some extent and I walked boldly on my way when suddenly I was struck by a curious medley of colours which I had not been expecting. All the doors and all the windows carried a flagstaff on which floated the Tricolour [the French flag]. A few patriots, more republican in spirit than their neighbours, or wishing to be thought so, had hoisted this banner and from that time onwards, as it was dangerous to be less patriotic than anyone else, everyone had decorated his windows with tricolour streamers and large coloured inscriptions.
He easily recognizes the office of the committee from the size of the flag, and the proportions of the red bonnet (mandatory attire for sans-culottes) ‘and the hang-dog appearance of the men on guard at the entrance.’
My heart beat but I walked in. I could have imagined myself in the cave of Cacus [a famous robber, three-headed and vomiting flames]. After crossing a little courtyard, narrow and dark, flanked with high walls, in which were collected an assortment of cut-throats armed with swords and pikes, I went up a squalid staircase at the top of which was an anteroom, leading into the room in which the Committee held its meetings. This anteroom was crowded with creatures even more hideous than those whom I had seen in the courtyard. It reeked of pipe-tobacco, brandy and meat [all impossible for others to get], aggravated by the heat of the fiery stove, which had a sickening, suffocating effect on anyone coming into the room out of the fresh air. ‘What do you want?’ said one of these horrible individuals as he gulped down a cupful of wine. ‘I have come to get my passport visa-ed.’ ‘Go into the room then.’ It was the room in which members of the Committee were sitting. I went in. It was worse than the anteroom. There was the same foul stench, the same bunch of brigands, but those in the Council room were more insolent than the others. They wore the rags of a feigned poverty, but they had hearts of steel and the mien of tyrants. From top to toe, nothing could have been more disgusting than their personal appearance. As sans-culottism had been promoted to a virtue and as the people, so far from displaying the trappings of luxury, had thrown themselves into the opposite extreme, these individuals affected a squalid poverty. At that time in Paris dirtiness was a sort of passport…
He describes the shocking attire, shirts open to the waste, of
….these impudent bullies, brutes raised out of the slime, where they had won notoriety by their deeds of violence. To crown it all, they assumed in the midst of their filth, a veneer of antiquity and gave each other Greek and Roman names which they disfigured grotesquely as soon as they began to address one another. ‘That’s a job for you, Manlius; you’re a clever cove, you’re one of ours.’
They were getting police to affix seals on property of people arrested the night before.
After these honest fellows had whispered together for a while and the stickers-on or removers of seals had gone off on their mission with one of the members of the Committee, the Chairman graciously took notice of me. ‘What do you want?’ ‘A visa for my passport.’ ‘Where do you come from?’ ‘Blanktown’. ‘Full of aristocrats.’ ‘You are mistaken, citizen.’ ‘Who are you calling vous? It’s only Pitt and Coburg who use the vous. In a free country one has to say tu.’ ‘Citizen, next time, I shall not fail to do so.’ ‘What have you come to Paris for?’ ‘To get some money from a gentleman of my acquaintance and go home again.’ At the word ‘gentleman’ which I had let slip in my confusion there was such an uproar in the Committee that I seriously thought that I was done for and that they were going to imprison me. ‘Ah…..you have come to see a gentleman. So…..you must be a gentleman yourself. Just look at this fellow, Brutus. Does he not have the build of a federalist [a very vague term for anyone against the Jacobins]?’ ‘I, citizen?’ ‘You be quiet and bring us your witnesses so that we may see if they look as suspect as you do.’
There is no point in asking what witnesses? He went back to his landlady. She explained that witnesses were guarantors – if their subject defaulted they would be arrested. Where in Paris could he find two people to take that risk, when all forty-eight sections were competing to slap as many as possible behind bars? His landlady directs him to someone who will do it for a fee. He has trouble finding the place because the streets have been renamed after heroes of the revolution. He finds the place and the wife says her husband has gone off to the Place de la Revolution to see a ‘score and a half  of aristocrats sneeze into the sack.’
That was the phrase for the amputation of heads, which, severed by the blade of the guillotine, fell speedily one on top of another into a kind of basin, where they floated in blood, which splashed up as the heads dropped, and flooded the pavement of the place directed to these daily butcheries.
The wife had advised her husband not to go for such a small batch, but when he returned, he said it had been a great pleasure ‘as he had never laughed so much.’ The valets to the executioner and the coachman of the tribunal warmed the crowd up with a burlesque show that was hilarious and which the husband still exploded in recollecting. It was of course a capital offence to show sympathy for the accused.
‘By God’, he said, after concluding his narrative, ‘these dogs died very bravely. It’s unfortunate that the aristocrats die like that. In this batch there was a little pullet of from seventeen to twenty, as fresh as a rose, who climbed up on to the platform as gaily as if she were going to dance a figure from a quadrille.’ ‘Seventeen to twenty was she? That’s early to start being an aristocrat.’ ‘You’re right’, said my companion, ‘but those people drink federalism with their mother’s milk.’
There you are – you have it, in the very first sentence of the extract. He is surrounded by ‘sinister faces’ and in a binary or black and white world, only two types of one group matter – revolutionaries or government agents. He is full of apprehension in this strange, hard new world. He feels guilty for leaving his wife and children. Will he see them again? How different is Paris – muted, sombre, deserted at night; even the street names have changed (and they are named after some awful or dreary people). He reads that a friend has been executed – most cruelly, and for nothing. He calls on another friend who has become a terrorist (Jacobin) for ‘insurance’ and who is terrified to be seen with him and who cannot get rid of him soon enough – the agents raid homes and make arrests at night. He sees that everyone has been frightened into showing support for the terrorist regime, and he reflects on the mindless banality – the spectral hypocrisy! – of their slogans. He has to deal with regulations that make Kafka look easy. You cannot comply with these Byzantine laws. No one will take him in. Everyone is scared. He sees police patrols in action – he has been warned not to get picked up – and he hears the anguish of a mother with a child who is another victim of the Great Terror. It is a random and capricious world of heartless and mindless cruelty to people. How did it all come to this?
Then he has to come face to face with the regime, dirty, rotten people way above their station wreaking revenge on their betters. Now he feels the full weight of Hamlet’s insolence of office, the proud man’s contumely and the oppressor’s wrong – those things that Hamlet thought of when contemplating suicide. He is offered a corrupt out – most police states are rotten to the core, and give an out to those who can afford it. A person will attest to him for a fee. But this man keeps laughing about the entertainment offered before the daily batch of the guillotine (only twenty-five, so small a batch that his wife did not think that it was worth his time). He reflects on the public beheading – sneeze into the sack – of a blithe seventeen year old girl.
All this takes place at the end of a century of what we are pleased to call the Enlightenment in Paris, perhaps the most civilized city in the world. Even allowing for some journalistic licence, how did the people of Paris become so degraded? How is it that a civilized French couple could sit down for dinner and happily swap notes about peoples’ heads being cut off in public and dropped into a bucket of blood, splashing the pavement? Was Dickens’ picture of the Terror and the Tricoteuses underdone?
Most people reading this will have experienced countless examples of rudeness and nastiness of people in power, but very few will have experienced it under a regime that has no conception of the rule of law, due process, or basic human rights. It is precisely that void, which seems to bring with it a general moral vacuum, that is of the essence of a police state. It is that which makes such a state so frightening and revolting – and degrading. There is no answer to the questions raised above – at least not one that is available down here – but we may seek to look at some features of the Terror practised in France, Russia and Germany.
In some accounts of the Russian Revolution, you can find a hideous photo of a kind of crucifixion practised in the civil war. The Reds have taken a Polish officer, stripped him, hanged him naked upside down, and then beaten, cut and tortured him until death. About twenty red soldiers are standing around looking sedate and only mildly interested. In the catalogue of the museum Topography of Terror at what used to be Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, the headquarters of the Gestapo, there is a photo taken from a distance in the market square at Ulm in 1940. A nineteen year old woman was being publicly shaved because of a relationship with a French P O W. She was later sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and two years’ loss of civil rights. Someone had objected to this brutal humiliation. The caption in the press was ‘Thousands of faces expressed mockery and disgust.’ In fact the photo up close shows people laughing and smiling as if their team had just won in football. It may be the most appalling photo in the book. You are watching people degrading themselves.
There is also a photo of SS guards and female administrative personnel at Neuengamme concentration camp in December 1943. There are more than a hundred seated at well laden tables under the runic slashes of the SS in what the SS called a ‘Yule celebration’. With all the red and white wines and the holly and the napkins on the tables, there were ‘Yule lights’ produced by the inmates. This photo, too, is appalling in its own way. Not one person is smiling. They might as well be dead. Their degradation has brought them to the Kingdom of Nothingness.
Degradation by its nature tends to occur over time and often so that people are not aware of how they are being changed for the worse. The career of a man called Simonov took off during the Great Terror of 1937-1938. On his death-bed in 1979, Simonov dictated a testimonial that was remarkable for its candour and insight.
To be honest about those times, it is not only Stalin that you cannot forgive, but you yourself. It is not that you did something bad – maybe you did nothing wrong, at least on the face of it – but that you became accustomed to evil. The events that took place in 1937-8 now appear extraordinary, diabolical, but to you, then a young man of 22 or 24, they became a kind of norm, almost ordinary. You lived in the midst of these events, blind and deaf to everything, you saw and heard nothing when people all around you were shot and killed, when people all around you disappeared.
People becoming ‘accustomed to evil’ might be close to the heart of the darkness confronting us.
2 thoughts on “Living with Terror and I S – Part I”
This reminds me of how Australians have become accustomed to the evil happening in their name on Manus, Nauru, Christmas Island, and even in our midst, in detention centres in our cities ( e.g. the late night raiding of families in their dorms by Border Force heavies with riot dogs, earlier this year in the Pinkenba detention centre in Brisbane. An act of sheer terror and bastardry, carried out to underline the High Court’s dismissal that very day of the appeal against the lawfulness of the off-shore ‘processing’ regime ).
The way a majority of Aussies just shrug off their cognizance of these atrocities saddens and dismays me.
Agreed. We do not have to be under terror to be degraded. It is enough if we are threatened with terror..