Terror and the Police State 1


[This is a short version of a book ‘Terror and the Police State; Punishment as a Measure of Despair’, published in 2015.  The book focussed on France after 1789, Russia after 1917, and Germany after 1933.  The instalments will follow the 21 chapter headings which are as follows: 1 Terms of Engagement; 2 Enduring emergency; 3 Righteousness; 4 Good bye to the law; 5 Instruments of terror; 6 Civil war; 7 Waves of terror; 8 Degradation; 9 Secret police; 10 Surveillance; 11 Denunciation; 12 Fear; 13 Popular courts and show trials; 14 Scapegoats, suspicion and proof; 15 Gulags; 16 Propaganda, religion, and cults; 17 Surrealism and banality; 19 The horror; 20 The meaning?; 21 Justification.  The short version is about one quarter the length of the original.  Each instalment is about 1200 words.]


Terms of engagement

What is terror?  Terror is extreme fear.  If I feel terror, I feel an intense form of fear.  When we talk of ‘the reign of 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 dead 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’.   All the terrorists we look at were in 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.  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.

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. Credo killers 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 gets worse in prison?

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’.  The short definition for our purposes is a ‘forcible substitution of a new form of government’.  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.

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 results 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.  The English jurist A.V. Dicey identified three elements.  The first element of the rule of law was the absolute supremacy of regular law over arbitrary power.  This was the supremacy of law over people.  The second aspect 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 what we call 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.

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, and we will see that the first thing to be done by those wishing to set up a police state is to scrap the rule of law.  The stakes are unbelievably high.  The police state is the ultimate threat to the dignity of the individual.  Russia and two of Europe’s most civilised nations at one time lapsed into a rule of terror in a police state.  They were then anything but civilised.  Immanuel Kant said:

Something that relates to our needs or wants has a market price; something that meets our taste or whim has a fancy price; but a quality that is the only basis of that which is an end in itself has more than a relative worth or price – it has intrinsic worth, that is, it has dignity … Morality, and mankind as capable of it, is the only thing which has dignity.

Hannah Arendt said:

The totalitarian attempt at global conquest and total domination has been the destructive way out of all impasses.  Its victory may coincide with the destruction of humanity; wherever it has ruled it has begun to destroy the essence of man.  Yet to turn our backs on the destructive forces of the century is of little avail …. We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion.  The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition.  This is the reality in which we live.  And this is why all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of a better future, are vain.

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