Safe and Profoundly Unsound

  1. Step One:​
    Invoke an external and internal threat. Pose it as a threat to civilization itself. Create a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solution. Insist that the leader’s superior instinct and access to privileged knowledge are more reliable than universal reason.
  2. Step Two:​
    Establish secret prisons. Suspend due judicial process and the right to habeas corpus, if only for certain sectors of the population. Establish military tribunals side by side with civilian courts. Establish a policy of necessary, state-sanctioned torture, and let these all measures quietly be made public. Confound the public understanding of human rights and civil rights.
  3. Step Three:
    Develop a paramilitary force. Deploy mercenaries abroad and encourage domestic intimidation, at election sites and public demonstrations, for example.
  4. Step Four:
    Watch ordinary citizens. Monitor private correspondence, telephone and electronic networks, and hubs of information such as libraries and schools. Make it known that to place your name on a petition or list of supporters or donors to a cause may suggest subversion.
  5. Step Five:​
    Infiltrate citizens’ groups. Intimidate grassroots organizations. Encumber free assembly.
  6. Step Six:​
    Arbitrarily detain and release citizens. Establish lists of citizens under suspicion.
  7. Step Seven:
    Target key individuals. Monitor the speech and activity of popular figures, college and university faculty, artists, progressive religious leaders and their institutions.
  8. Step Eight:​
    Restrict the access of the press. Threaten journalists with prison at home and violence abroad. Flood the media with misinformation.
  9. Step Nine:
    Cast criticism as “espionage” and dissent as “treason.”
  10. Step Ten:
    Subvert the rule of law.

Naomi Wolf is a journalist and author who has studied the ways that totalitarian regimes and fascist governments typically have come to power. She enumerates these in the steps above. Like many historians, she concludes that most often it is not in a thunderous, violent coup that open societies have been eclipsed and dictatorships arisen, though this kind of action may be the final straw. Rather, she says, repression tends to creep in quietly, stealthily, on muffled paws, with no single action, however oppressive, likely by itself to alarm the general population. From the mid-19th century through the entire 20th, she says, democracies have been overthrown and dictatorships have arisen in countries where most of these ten steps have been advanced. In her book, The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, she says she does not mean to imply that the current administration is systematically marching through this checklist, but she does mean to warn that in recent years our leaders have deliberately, not accidentally, assaulted the premises of the Constitution, and freedoms we take so easily for granted that they are to us like air—invisible—have been eroded beyond the possibility of repair in our lifetime.

Wolf wrote the book as a gift for a young couple she admires. It took shape as she was watching them dance at their wedding. The young woman had been Wolf’s student, a gifted writer from Texas; the young man is a Vietnamese-American teacher who helps run a national suicide prevention hotline. She says, “They are the kind of idealistic young Americans who need to lead our nation out of this crisis. It seemed to me they needed one more wedding present: tools to realize and defend their freedom, and means to be sure that their own children would be born in liberty.” She opens the book with words from Justice William O. Douglas:

As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such a twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air—however slight—lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.

Think of someone young you love, dancing, maybe at a wedding—dancing, working, studying, wondering, asking bright questions, and twilight is falling. Think about watching a child you love, or maybe a child you don’t even know, maybe children here. Think about their future as Americans; think about them singing, when they go to school, as I imagine they still do:

My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims' pride,
From every mountainside—Let freedom ring!

What do you think about that? What do you fear, on their behalf? This is not the country we grew up in. Their America is different. It’s a hard time to be young, but even harder, I think, is to be an ally of the young, knowing what we know. How to instill in them a sense of reliable, durable hope, but not only that. How do we plant in them also a sense of responsible, proud citizenship? A sense of identity not laced with nationalism, arrogance and manifest destiny, but graceful identity, worn with dignity, grounded in open-eyed history? How do we give them a sense of pride, a sense of humility, a sense of great possibility, a sense of belonging, as Americans, to the united states, the united peoples, of the world?

Wolf writes,

We take our American liberty for granted the way we take our natural resources for granted, seeing both, rather casually, as being magically self-replenishing. We have not noticed how vulnerable either resource is until very late in the game, when systems start to falter. We have been slow to learn that liberty, like nature, demands a relationship with us in order for it to continue to sustain us.

Most of us have only a faint understanding of how societies open up or close down, become supportive of freedom or ruled by fear… One reason for our vagueness about how liberty lives or dies is that we have tended lately to subcontract out the tasks of the patriot: to let the professionals—lawyers, scholars, activists, politicians—worry about understanding the Constitution and protecting our rights, they way we hire a professional to do our taxes. They can keep democracy up and running. We’re busy.

What kind of relationship do we want our children to have with liberty? What kind of relationship do we intend to have with it ourselves?

Taped to the wall above my computer is a color photo clipped from the Star Tribune, a close-up of two women at the Minneapolis airport. One, with her back to the camera, is holding a baby. The other is wearing handcuffs and a face of abject anguish. She’s reaching for the baby, with tissues in her hands, sobbing, and the caption reads, “Before she was to be deported and flown to Nicaragua, Nidia Vallecillo pleaded with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to remove her handcuffs so she could hold her son Jared.” Immigration agents arrested her in her house in the night, and they almost took her away before she could tell them that the baby was there, asleep in his crib. The two were taken to the airport, where Nidia was informed that though she must leave the country, her son, who is a U.S. citizen could stay. “With whom?” she asked, and they were both flown to New York, where they were separated because the baby didn’t have a passport to continue to Managua. In the last moment, before the plane left, someone intervened, a temporary stay was granted, and many hours later, Nidia and Jared were flown back to Minnesota and returned to their house. There they will remain until the baby’s passport has been issued and then, at any moment, without warning, her deportation process will begin again.

They are legion—factory workers, gardeners, nannies, cooks, construction workers, neighbors. Many are afraid to go to work, for fear they may be taken while their children are at school. Many are afraid to go home, for fear their children may have said something inadvertently to the wrong person about their undocumented status. This wave of terror is almost imperceptible to the wide majority of us, the white majority of us. It doesn’t really touch us, or so we imagine, not yet.

Who belongs here, who doesn’t, who says so, and why? I look at Nidia Vallecillo in her handcuffs in the airport, crying for her child, and wonder what exactly is the threat she poses? On the scale of yellow, orange, red alerts, where do she and baby Jared fall? The big sign flashing on the road to the airport urges us to report all suspicious activity; I can think of few things more suspect than taking a mother (who is not a criminal) from her infant by force in the middle of the night, and deporting her to a country from which she may never be able to return to see him or hold him or mother him again.

Why are we afraid of her? The immigration issue is about economics, as it has always been, and it’s about security, as it has always been—but at its core it is about fear, and racism and power and manipulation. It appeals to base and ancient instincts deep within us, not only that primal fear of “the other,” but also an even more irrational fear of change and loss and loss of control, loss of the known world, America the beautiful. Nidia’s threat to us is that she’s here, now, working 9-5, paying taxes, playing by the rules, keeping her home, raising her child, speaking English, speaking Spanish, and in every way, every day, showing us the face, the complexion, the complexity of the orientation, the character and culture of the 21st century American person. 100 yeas ago she was Italian, Russian, a Jew from anywhere in eastern Europe; 150 years ago she was Chinese, Irish, German, Swedish and Norwegian. And now, of course, she is a supporting character in the great drama of the so-called War on Terror. As a so-called alien, she is a real and present danger to the so-called Homeland.

The poem we heard earlier, about the Muslim woman flying into New York City, was written in 1992. Fear has been a force since long before the war in Iraq, or the establishment of US Patriot Act, or the Military Commissions Act, which sanctions secret prisons, or the Office of Homeland Security, or the dismissal of all those attorneys last year, or the shredding of torture documents. Mohja Kahf’s collection is called E-mails from Scheherazad. She has another poem called “Hijab Scene #7,” written in 1995:

No, I’m not bald under the scarf
No, I’m not from that country
where women can’t drive cars
No, I would not like to defect
I’m already American
but thank you for offering
What else do you need to know
relevant to my buying insurance,
opening a bank account,
reserving a seat on a flight?
Yes, I speak English
Yes, I carry explosives
They’re called words
And if you don’t get up
off your assumptions,
They’re going to blow you away

One of the assumptions with which I struggle always is the notion that I can be a citizen without being a vigilant patriot, that because I’m unlikely to be deported or detained offshore, I can leave the hard questions and the hard work to someone else, subcontracting out my share of the work of democracy. But I know this is not true.

We from a long line of heretics who have professed many beliefs, blasphemous and orthodox, about all kinds of things, both sacred and profane. The freedom to speak, whatever the speech, the freedom to believe, whatever the belief, is the heart of the matter for us. In centuries past Unitarians and Universalists were burned at the stake, they were tortured in dungeons, their books were burned, their churches destroyed, their livelihoods ruined for holding to their truths, for refusing to recant, refusing comply with governments, or bishops or mobs. In defense of the free mind, heart, spirit, soul, community, they died in Prague, Geneva, Krakow, London, Dachau, Selma… We come from a long line of dissenters and dissidents who died for this faith, and from others who survived, like the ones who wrote that organizing statement in New England, “Respecting in each other and in all the right of intellect and conscience to be free, we set up no theological conditions of membership”—no ID cards, no pledge of allegiance to any creed, no fences for the spirit. “And recognizing the brotherhood of the human race,” they wrote, “and the equality of human rights, we make no distinction as to the conditions and rights of membership in this society, on account of sex, or color, or nationality.” That was written in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, and though that particular church was in the north, not everyone in the neighborhood was prepared to go that far. Most citizens and congregations were not prepared to go that far, especially when it was not yet clear which side would win the war. To the Unitarians, that didn’t matter: the congregation welcomed slaves, women, heretics and true believers, anyone who had “an honest aim” to make the search for truth the rule of life. What mattered was freedom and conscience.

How far do we need to be prepared to go? What matters now, to us, the descendants and inheritors of such a noble legacy?

In 1998, Mohja Kahf wrote a poem after 120 people were killed in a movie theater and a small adjacent mosque in Algiers. This is part of the last verse:

I am a disbeliever
in everything but the purity of the bodies
of the men and women—with or without the veil,
with or without the markings of right identity-

[I am a disbeliever]
in everything but the suppleness of the children

I am a disbeliever in every scripture in the world that leaves out
“How was the movie? I love you. I love you.”

Whatever we variously believe, we are disbelievers in anything but the basic humanity of everyone.

The freedom and beauty of everyone.

The dignity and worth of everyone.

The belonging of everyone.

We are believers in the responsibility of everyone, of all of us, each of us, no matter how frightened we are in these frightening times, to be something other than afraid.