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.

Here and there – The politics of identity and identity politics

The German nationalist party AfD pledged to ‘take back our country and our people.’  Who might ‘our people’ be?  The party did very well in Saxony – that had been part of East Germany.  Many young people left there for jobs in the west.  A Dresden observer said that in the east, the church wasn’t strong, and families had splintered.  The state was not seen to represent these people.  By saying that it will take back these people, AfD was giving them a sense of identity.

Giving people a sense of identity is the traditional model for all nationalist parties.  Their supporters feel neglected if not rejected.  The party offers them self-respect by allowing them to identify with the nation.  Symbols like the flag and the anthem become not just more valued, but sacred.  Citizenship means so much to these people.  It’s their most cherished asset.  So, they are fiercely opposed to diluting it by offering it to others.

It’s a curious word, ‘identity.’  The OED relevantly has the ‘quality or condition of being the same’ and ‘individuality, personality, individual existence.’  Your identity is what enables others to identify you – say who you are.  You don’t want to be taken for someone else, or, worse, not be identified at all.  Being not identified is tragically close to being not recognised.

Political parties like One Nation and AfD say that they fear that their nation is losing its identity.  For both, the main threats come from immigration and Islam.  These parties talk a lot about ‘sovereignty’ and national pride.  They are against any foreign relations that may diminish either.  It was exactly the same with both Farage and Trump.  They went head to head in exploiting popular prejudice against Muslims.

One Nation is full of nonsense about what it stands for, like:

Australian values include honesty and speaking openly, directly and respectfully with complete freedom of speech and expression to ensure integrity and accountability. 

But the party is very open about the fact that it appeals to life’s losers and victims:

We believe that our country’s future wealth and the prosperity of all Australians can be assured only through listening and then caring enough to openly address the problems that Liberal-Labor-Nationals-Greens created politically and continue to make. We listen and we care enough to speak for the voiceless and the powerless.

One Nation is not just against Islam, but embarrassingly for many Christians, the party claims to stand for a Christian nation.

We are a Christian country with one law for all…..

One Nation supports the refugee programme, but we must have a say in who comes in. We must be mindful of taking people that are Christian, and genuine refugees.  

If a nation is in some unspecified way a Christian nation, where does that leave Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists?  Or Muslims?

The AfD is, like One Nation, against Islam.

Islam does not belong to Germany.  Its expansion and the ever-increasing number of Muslims in the country are viewed by the AfD as a danger to our state, our society, and our values.

Naturally, both these parties believe that climate change is a myth.

It’s curious that people like Hanson, Farage and Trump are so preoccupied with religion, and saying that they want to protect their nation from one faith in particular, when nothing about their history, demeanour or conduct suggests that they have ever had more than passing contact with anything even remotely resembling God, and they do this in nations that purport to cherish religious freedom and neutrality.  This is another facet of the sad fact that nationalist parties inevitably, it seems, provoke conflict in their nations.

Now, all parties target groups – analysts speak of ‘focus groups’ – but nationalists specifically target those who feel ‘voiceless and powerless.’  It’s the same for Farage and Trump, as well as Hanson.  They trade on resentment and jealousy.  The cliché is ‘politics of envy.’  They are big on attack but rotten at building.  (Farage didn’t even bother to hang around to try to build.  His job was done with the detonation.)  In discussing the collapse of the Republican Party, Bret Stephens referred to ‘fury factories’ like Fox and Breitbart, and said:

Opinion journalism is meant to influence and inflame, and it does. Especially in an age in which civics is taught poorly (and, increasingly, rarely), people are politically suggestible.  Bill O’Reilly is now the right’s historian, Mark Levin its go-to legal expert, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham its moral conscience.  These are not ideas guys.  They’re anger guys.  Their specialty is the communication of rage to an audience prone to histrionics.  It can feel awfully good to be awfully mad.

People who aren’t familiar with Fox News or Sky don’t know how vicious and predatory they can be.  The ‘fury factories’ share and incite anger.  The problem is that feeling ‘awfully mad’ does not of itself get ‘politically suggestible’ people anywhere.  Nor does it get them representatives who have the training or patience to negotiate laws that will work for their supporters.

So, nationalists take aim at groups within the community.  You might, if you were that way disposed, say that they were engaging in ‘identity politics’.  But that term is one of abuse for those in Australia who admire Trump or Farage.  They get very worked up when people agitate politically based on common interests held by people of a particular sex, sexuality, faith, colour, class, or age.  I have had some trouble understanding why in a free country it is not good for people to seek to advance their common interests.  Was it wrong for the Quakers to campaign against slavery?

Well people on Sky or at The Australian get very worked up about ‘identity politics.’  Steve Bannon said he could crush the Democrats if they persisted with identity politics.  But that is just how Trump and Farage and Hanson operate.  What is the difference between people coming together to say bad things about Muslims and to seek to hold them back, and people coming to say good things about Lesbian women or married men and seeking to move them forward?

All this suggests that we could drop the word ‘identity’ from politics either as an appeal or as a rebuke.  It’s another instance of our intellectual wooliness.

Why history? Civilisation- Are we there yet?

Sir Lewis Namier was a great historian.  In one of his books, he said that ‘England knows not democracy as a doctrine, but has always practised it as a fine art.’  Later, he said ‘Restraint, coupled with the tolerance which it implies and with plain human kindness, is much more valuable in politics than ideas which are ahead of their time…’

Now, those observations are rather large, but as I look about me here in Australia, what I miss is ‘plain human kindness’ and ‘restraint’.  These of course can’t be measured, much less prescribed.  Nor would they appear in many definitions of ‘civilisation’. But might we not hope that civilisation is favourable to kindness and restraint?

Earlier I said why I think that neither ancient nor medieval Europe was civilised.  Rather, I see the germ of Western civilisation in the respect for the dignity of life in both parts of the bible and then in the fumbling efforts of medieval lawyers in England to grope toward the notion of the rule of law.  That may be the bias of a lawyer; Kenneth Clark had a natural bias as an art critic.  Then I see the loosening of the shackles of the priesthood across Europe; the English parliament’s victory over its kings; the espousal of human dignity by Kant and others in the Enlightenment; the Declaration of the Rights of Man in France (at a frightful cost to it and Europe); and finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the abolition of slavery in England, and the victory of the North in the American Civil War.  If I had to nominate landmarks in the arts, and I’m not sure why I should, I would start with Cervantes, Shakespeare, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.  But if you take the view that a nation cannot be said to be civilised if it tolerates the ultimate Caste of slavery, then civilisation has only become possible in the last two hundred years.

In my view, in order to qualify as civilised, a people or nation should satisfy the following criteria.

  • It has a moral code that respects the dignity and the right to property of each person in the group.
  • It has a mature and stable form of government that is able to enforce those rights, and to preserve its own structure.
  • It observes the rule of law – the government is under the law and all people are equal before it.
  • Its working is not clogged or threatened by corruption.
  • It seeks to provide for the subsistence of its members and allow them to have sufficient leisure to pursue happiness or improvement in such ways as they may choose, provided that they do not harm others.

Put differently, a group of people may be said to be ‘civilised’ to the extent that people are ‘civil’ to each other. Some would want to say something about people who have got on giving back to the community that nourished them, and looking after the aged, the sick, and the unemployed, and refugees, but I fear that these aspirations are too plastic here.

It is hard to see many nations outside Western Europe and the U K and its former colonies qualifying as ‘civilised’.  Japan for example has big trouble with corruption, and Indonesia has nothing like an independent judiciary; each is at best marginal on the status of women.  Depending on your views on the death penalty, the U S may be disqualified.  China fails on the rule of law and India fails on caste.  Russia in my view has never come even close to being civilised – even if it has produced some of the finest artists in the world.  Public opinion in the West has moved on since Auschwitz and Hiroshima.  We now attach more weight to the protection of human rights and dignity, and from our own annihilation, than some impossibly enlightened and refined works of art whose real secrets are not revealed to the unwashed.

And the fact that you have reached civilisation does not preclude your falling out of it.  France and Germany were and are among the most civilised nations on earth, but each has descended into the bowels of humanity, the first after 1789, and the second after 1933 – with frightful results for their neighbours in each case.  All these thoughts put big holes in any idea that mankind is always on the assent – especially as we see democracy, capitalism and Christianity appearing to collapse under their own weight.  And no one has got close to finding an alternative for any of them.  As for art, we look in vain for the staying power of Dante, El Greco or Beethoven.

This brings me back to ‘restraint, coupled with the tolerance which it implies and with plain human kindness.’  Yes, we probably can’t use these as criteria for ‘civilisation’, but we may surely notice that their absence suggests a problem with the one that we claim. Just look at us here and our rejection of refugees.

The one thing I’m clear on is that I don’t see either restraint or kindness in the David of Michelangelo.  What I see there is Adolf Hitler in drag.  And it’s not just in the eyes.