*This article was written several years ago on my old blog.
It was a springtime ritual that my classmates and I engaged in the first year we studied American History and every year thereafter until we finally graduated. Having lingered longer over the Civil War than the nine month school year could justify, we were forced to fly through World War I and, while the green heralds of summer sprouted on the tree branches around us, squeeze in some discussion on World War II. It was at this point that we invariably shook our heads, sighed, and wondered how the Teutonic peoples could do nothing while Jews, homosexuals, dissidents, Poles, Czechs and all the rest – eleven million in all – were cooked, starved, gassed, shot and otherwise exterminated.
In high school, and later college, I learned that this question was prevalent in all the other little grade schools, prevalent to the point of being trite. To be complete, any discussion of World War II had to include the title question of this post, generally delivered with a practiced, exasperated, regretful sigh. The other parties would then shake their heads in commiseration. Like actors who have been in the same play, we could recombine in different groups, mingle with total strangers, but reproduce the same sequence because we all knew our parts.
The answer to this question, though no doubt complex in its entirety, is rather simple to summarize. By a series of gradual changes, each enacted after a critical mass of the population becomes sufficiently accustomed to the previous change, a government can get its citizens to accept anything (especially if it can invent a crisis or crises to justify its actions). Those citizens who might be moved to resist are cowed into sulking submission by the fear – probably justified – that they would be acting alone. If the entire student body hurls spit wads at the principal, the odds of being singled out for retribution are small, but even the malcontents will behave, for the time being, if they know they will stand out for such behavior.
But it is not in pursuit of a full explanation of German inaction in the face of gruesome tyranny that sets my fingers to the keyboard today. Rather, it is the implicit and smug sense of superiority that permeated every discussion of the topic that motivates me. Should the reader be surprised that so little was done to oppose so great an evil, he should look at the America around him, the nascent police state, and realize that the ability to be both mollified and cowed into submission and acceptance is a human, rather than a Germanic, quality.
To ask when a nation becomes a police state is akin to asking when a homo erectus becomes a homo sapiens. We may differ as to where to draw the line, but certainly we can both recognize the process. No informed observer could conclude that America is not drifting steadily in this direction, but the hell of it is that no one cares enough to try to stop it. For all the indignation we directed at Germany as children, we have grown into adults who either believe there is actually a chance they may be killed by a terrorist attack and have thrown their support to the police state; are not interested enough to find out what is going on; or start blogs to complain that no one is doing anything but, despite being perfectly capable of seeing where all this is going, decline to make the sacrifices that might amount to serious opposition because they know they will be the only one throwing the spit wad.
The recent surveillance powers that government has granted itself did not move us to action. Too many figured the odds of their privacy being violated were very small (strangely, this power to calculate abandons them when they think of a terrorist bomb). Maybe they do not realize that the power it gives the ruling party to squash their opponents is dangerous enough, even if the privacy of regular citizens is never violated. The rest of us did not want to get caught with a spit wad in our hands. The president's declaration that he could name, on no evidence, anyone as an enemy combatant and hold them indefinitely with neither trial nor charges did not move us to action. Too many figured that the odds of them being detained were very small, not realizing that the power that it gives the ruling party to squash opposition is dangerous enough, whether or not they use it on the general populace. The rest of us did not want to get caught with a spit wad in our hands.
During the recent Democratic National Convention, and now during the Republican National Convention, we can see the government engaged in the most audacious displays of human rights violations while a compliant populace does little more than take a few moments to whine about it. Even by the US government's charter, itself a human rights violation for any right-thinking anarchist, these acts are execrable. The local police of Denver and Minneapolis, assisted at least by the FBI, are engaged in acts of intimidation against would-be protesters. Ranging from physical assaults to threatening searches and seizures and even outright theft, the aim is to crush resistance from any sheep who would protest that the shepherd was coming to resemble the wolves.
Together, we all let this happen. We started to worship the police and other government officials. We made laws to elevate them to a superior status. We treated their deaths as greater tragedies than others, and their work as more important. We permitted them certain behaviors that no other person could dare engage in. Even when government behavior is finally chastised, it is chastised in the abstract, and no punishment to individuals is given. We allowed them to prohibit a behavior that is perfectly legal, except when done to those of exalted status (such as the mere act of photographing them).
It is not hard to see a dark future out there. And it is out there, like some hulking beast in a horror flick. It hasn't shown up yet, and we don't know with accuracy what it looks like, but we know that it is ugly. And no one is going to do anything about it, even if it gets worse. Not when the draft is reinstituted, not when the internet is censored, not when war breaks out with Iran, not when elections are postponed, not when Muslims are corralled in detention centers like Jews in Germany and Japanese in America a few generations ago, not when a nuclear bomb is dropped on Iran… all this and more looms on the horizon, avoidable in theory but maybe not in practice.
And if we don't avoid it, the blame will be ours, because we didn't give the politicians and their jack-booted thugs exactly what they deserved. Once upon a time, a man like Sam Adams could torch the house of a British official, run the bastard out of town, and still be elected to the Continental Congress as well as Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts. Nowadays we suffer from some fundamental perversion whereby we hold in reverence the very boot that grinds our faces into the pavement. And those of us with the spit wads look about sheepishly, waiting for someone else to fire the first shot.
That is how the Germans could permit tyranny to flourish. They did it the same way we do. May our fellow Man forgive us if we allow our situation to progress from here like the German situation did from 1932 to 1945.