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The Attack on MoveOn.org and Other Dangerous 'Fingerprints'

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Yeah, I didn't like the wording of the ad either. But the attack on MoveOn.org by the Senate last week is not an aberration but is part of a dangerous -- and accelerating -- trend of echoes from the past.

Students of history know that the National Socialists in Germany, before they came to power, made multiple assaults on democracy by pushing for laws and that expanded penalties for opponents' speaking out against certain subjects. What they -- and then Stalin, who studied Hitler -- perfected was the identification of a `third rail' of untouchable subjects that one could never approach critically without facing escalating penalties -- job loss, personal attacks, or, just a little later, criminal charges. These subjects were the war, the party itself, and the military. Making these subjects sacred and untouchable allowed National Socialists to commit any number of crimes by explaining that the abusive actions were taken in the name of the off-limits-to-criticism ideals.

Then once they came to power, they developed an ever-expanding network of laws criminalizing ever expanding minor actions critical of the state or of the military or the paramilitary forces; they developed broad definitions of `treason' and of what it meant to `impugn the honor of the nation' -- so that soon it became a crime against the state, defined as an assault on patriotism and a form of treason, to listen to the BBC or to speak up for an imprisoned Jew or communist.

The precedent set last week, of the U.S. Senate saying that we in America face possible state censure for what can be ANY criticism of the military -- on the basis that such criticism can `impugn the honor' of the military -- is dangerous in the extreme if you know your history.

First of all, and I say this with tremendous admiration for the men and women of the U.S. military, this is a 'duh' moment if you have read anything about closing societies of the past: in a closing society the leaders will ALWAYS send trusted, admired military personnel to make its case to the population and to apparently legitimize the power grab: Pinochet secured his coup by terrifying citizens about a plan to assassinate military leaders and then sent military leaders to speak to citizens, asking them not to defend Allende. The list of would-be dictators who utilize trusted military men and women for these advance PR purposes is quite long.

The fact is that military leaders in our own and other countries can and do sometimes lie to the people to advance the interests of what are sometimes corrupt leaders. This is not a personal attack but an acknowledgment of history -- witness the Vietnam war. Had Colin Powell been called to account for lying to us and the UN about the WMD, nearly four thousand Americans might be alive today; but had this benchmark of state censure for American speech preceded his testimony, even more voices would have been stilled. The Founders placed in Congress the ability to oversee the military precisely because they knew that when pressed by a corrupt executive, any standing army, even an American one, even a standing army made up of nothing but decent men, can be directed to any purpose -- purposes not necessarily in the people's interest.

* * * * *

In my book, End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, I have written about the blueprint for fascism, and about the fact that there are 10 classic steps to closing down a democracy. When I was researching the book, the general principles that leapt off the pages of history, about how leaders crush an open civil society, were alarming enough. Knowing 'the blueprint' was even more shocking as I looked around at what was unfolding in America, because it was so predictive. From reading German history, which shows how a 'fascist shift' is engineered by expanding the definition of 'terrorist' increasingly to include citizens that look more like you and me (a tactic imitated by Stalin, the East German Stasi, the Chinese Politburo and now the Egyptians, who are referencing the Patriot Act as they round up opposition leaders and put them in jail) one could tell in fall of 2006, when laws were passed to make Animal Liberation-type action against property a form of 'terrorism,' that environmentalists would start to be targeted and tried as terrorists -- which actually happened by March of the next year.

From reading history, one could predict with absolute certainty that within two years of citizens accepting laws that permit the suspension of habeas corpus and the abuse of prisoners by the State, that the State would start to hurt people at home. (I challenge readers to name a single society that has created a network of secret prisons where torture takes place -- that then did NOT eventually use force against dissidents, opposition leaders and other members of civil society at home).

So those predictive elements of 'the blueprint' are bad enough. But these are still generalizations -- you can intellectualize them away. What really set me aback profoundly, though -- actually setting my hair on end at times -- was what I have come to call 'historical fingerprints.' These are the moments when the small details of events in fascist crackdowns of the past are so directly echoed by small details -- signature details -- of events in the present that it is very hard to avoid the hypothesis that someone influential in this administration has rather brilliantly studied history -- not just the politics and tactics of fascism but its culture and imagery and language -- and is reusing what has been shown to work.

The National Socialists introduced the term 'Heimat' -- Homeland. The Bush administration introduced the term 'Homeland,' as in 'Homeland Security,' to take the place of the more neutral 'Domestic' or 'Internal.'

Stalin coined the hyped notion of what he called 'sleepers' or 'sleeper cells' -- these were purported to be secret terrorist agents of global capitalism who would pretend to be good Soviet citizens, perhaps for years, but who would rise up at a signal to wreak mass havoc on Soviet society. By 2002 the White House introduced the term 'sleeper cells,' which was not in common usage in America.

Joseph Goebbels pioneered the 'embedding' of reporters with military troops as a way to support favorable coverage; William Shirer was embedded with German troops in the invasion of France and Nazi filmmaker Leni von Riefenstahl was embedded with German troops in Poland.

Early on, Hitler sought legislation that retroactively protected the SS from war crimes. This was a major step to opening the door to the violence against German citizens that followed. The Bush administration has sought to shield its violent interrogators retrospectively from being charged with war crimes.

Lenin set up military tribunals that bypassed the judiciary. Mussolini imitated this and did the same. Stalin imitated Mussolini and set up secretive military tribunals that bypassed the established judiciary. The National Socialists created the 'People's Courts' that bypassed the legitimate judiciary. These courts stripped prisoners of habeas corpus and were characterized by prisoners having no right of appeal.

Stalin pioneered the use of sleep deprivation, extremes of hot and cold, standing (or 'stress') positions, psychological humiliation, the use of dogs, and a separate facility to punish uncooperative prisoners in the Gulag with prolonged isolation. Guantanamo and U.S.-held Iraqi prisons reproduce the same tactics. (By the way, after a few days in a 'standing position,' which you recall Donald Rumsfeld supported, innocent prisoners in the Gulag would 'sign anything.')

Nazi propaganda claimed that Jews hid from arrest in 'mouseholes.' When the scene of Saddam Hussein's capture was presented to the world, talking points, widely picked up by the media, introduced, again, a term that was generally unfamiliar in the U.S.: Hussein had been hiding in what they called a 'spider-hole.'

German troops tormented the imprisoned leader of Austria, Kurt von Schuschnigg, by blasting popular music into his cell day and night; U.S. interrogators do the same with rock and roll in U.S.-held Iraqi prisons.

National Socialists shaved the beards of Jews in streets and in the early days of the secret SA prisons, as a form of psychological humiliation. Incredibly, unbelievably, a U.S. spokesman gave an interview recently in The Washington Post about a detention center he oversees in Iraq -- where, he seemed to be saying, prisoners could be kept indefinitely at his discretion, a set of guidelines I am struggling to distinguish from those that formally define a gulag or a concentration camp. He proudly told the reporter that moderate Muslim prisoners had forcibly attacked and shaved the beards of more radical Muslims. Here is how he described the incident:

We had a compound of moderates for the first time overtake . . . extremists. It's never happened before. Found them, identified them, threw them up against the fence and shaved their frickin' beards off of them. . . . I mean, that is historic.

This would be an act of mass prisoner violence that, if this story is indeed true, would surely have been prevented by U.S. troops unless it was seen as acceptable. Human Rights groups have also reported that prisoners in U.S. custody have had their beards forcibly shaved as part of their humiliation in U.S. held prisons.

The Chinese Politburo calls the secret surveillance file that keeps track of the work and private life of every Chinese citizen an 'iron triangle.' Bush referred to his former key group of advisers as the 'iron triangle.'

When the WMD argument ran dry, the White House argued that we had to invade Iraq, a country that was not at war against us, because, the administration claimed, Iraq was a staging-ground for Muslim terrorists to attack us, and because Saddam had massacred ethnic minorities like the Kurds. National Socialists told the German people that the country had to invade Czechoslovakia, a country which was not at war with Germany, because, they argued, it was a staging-ground for Bolshevik terrorists to attack Germany, and the Czechs were butchering ethnic minorities, the Slovaks, Germans, Magyars and Poles.

A U.S. government spokesman, in the wake of the foiled sneaker-bomb plot from London, gave a sound bite that was widely picked up -- and one that was unusual, for a government bureaucrat, it its use of dark poetry: if this had gone forward, he said, the world would have stood still. Hitler said of his military plans in 1940-41, that 'When "Barbarossa" begins, the world will hold its breath.'

Take a look at Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, especially the plane descent. Then take a look at the 'Mission Accomplished' photo-op.

Finally, we are seeing fingerprints in the way that our government is conducting surveillance on its own citizens. Consider, for example, the following passage in a recent Washington Post article:

Zakariya Reed, a Toledo firefighter, said in an interview that he has been detained at least seven times at the Michigan border since fall 2006. Twice, he said, he was questioned by border officials about 'politically charged' opinion pieces he had published in his local newspaper. The essays were critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East, he said. Once, during a secondary interview, he said, 'they had them printed out on the table in front of me.'

Readers of U.S. war correspondent William Shirer's Berlin Diary know that this was a tactic perfected by National Socialists to intimidate critics and newspaper reporters: Nazi press officials would interrogate Shirer -- while displaying copies of personal telegrams that he had sent to his newspaper editor on the desk between the two men and they spoke.

These echoes of the past are truly disturbing and, as mentioned, are part of a larger fascist shift in this country. The good news is that a revolution is brewing fast. A coalition of organizations including Amnesty International USA, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Human Rights Watch -- representing nearly five million Americans -- has formed to fight back against government assaults on our Constitution and our liberties. It is called the American Freedom Campaign and I urge you all visit the AFC site to learn more and to join the movement to save our democracy.

A significant portion of this post appeared originally on Powell's Book Blog.