The Fragility of Human Behavior in the Crisis: When Civil Liberties End, Tyranny Begins

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In 1989 Donald Trump wrote in a full page advertisement in the New York Daily News“civil liberties end when an attack on our safety begins.” He said that in relation to the Central Park Five, five teenagers who were falsely accused and convicted of the rape of a jogger in Central Park. In 2002 after the real assailant confessed and his crime verified by DNA evidence. Despite the reality Mr. Trump has continued to speak to that issue and claim that the five falsely convicted and imprisoned men are guilty.

Mr Trump repeated expressed his anger that they did not receive the death penalty, something that by the way is not part of the law in any state. Since becoming President the Mr Trump has suggested all sorts of extrajudicial and unconstitutional remedies to crime. Today he suggested doing that to gun owners who could be considered potential mass murderers. He told a group of Congressmen and Senators, as well as his own Vice President Mike Pence: “You could do exactly what you’re saying, but take the guns first, go through due process second.”

Now personally I don’t think that’s such a bad idea, but it still is unconstitutional. Earlier in the week the President proposed the death penalty to all convicted drug dealers. Again, no love for drug dealers but the President doesn’t get to impose sentences, but the President praised the extermination methods that Philippine President Duterte uses not just to kill suspected drug dealers but political opponents and members of the press. Of course the President has long suggested the political opponents should be jailed and the Press is an “an enemy of the people.” 

As I have written over the past few days in discussing the Reichstag Fire I am very concerned that as the walls close in on the Trump Presidency, that as the Muller investigation implicates more and more of his advisors and quite possibly family members, that as members of his administration like Hope Hicks admit that they lied for him, that the danger to our Republic only rises. I am afraid that there will be a Reichstag Fire moment that will allow the President to through already existing Executive orders and laws to scrap constitutional liberties and establish an authoritarian state. It’s not so much that he has to be popular to do so, the fact is that under threat of attack that most Americans will surrender liberty for the illusion of security. That was demonstrated in 2002 when the Patriot Act, an act so revoltingly un-American and totalitarian in its implications was passed overwhelmingly by both houses of Congress with hardly any resistance.

That is what concerns me. Should a war break out, should there be a major terrorist attack, or anything that severely disrupts the country the mechanisms are in place for the President to declare the situation extraordinary and to take power. The thing is that no President has acted in such a way, but President Trump has repeatedly suggested violating the Constitution and praised foreign leaders like Dutarte, Putin, and Erdogan, men who all use such circumstances and laws to their advantage.

Timothy Snyder wrote:

“For tyrants, the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission. For us, the lesson is that our natural fear and grief must not enable the destruction of our institutions. Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, precisely when it seems most difficult to do so. After the Reichstag fire, Hannah Arendt wrote that “I was no longer of the opinion that one can simply be a bystander.”

Of course Mr Trump has a hard core of loyal supporters who in his words would remain loyal to him “even if he shot someone on 5th Avenue.” Some are actually quite frightening, but in truth I am more frightened by the vast number of people in this country of every part of the political spectrum cannot tell the difference between fact and fiction or true and false, people how simply go along with the flow, especially in times of crisis.  Hannah Arendt, who saw the Nazi takeover of Germany in the beginning wrote:

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

In a world such as the one that we live today it is those who simply go with the flow or are easily persuaded into accepting what in normal times they would not accept because the times are exceptional, or in a crisis believe what they are told and regardless of what happens to fellow citizens or neighbors turn their backs on injustice. Most are totally ordinary and unremarkable and are no different than so many others who committed terrible crimes against humanity and too part in genocide.

British Historian Laurence Rees wrote:

“human behavior is fragile and unpredictable and often at the mercy of the situation. Every individual still, of course, has a choice as to how to behave, it’s just that for many people the situation is the key determinate in that choice.” 

When people feel that a crisis makes a situation exceptional to the point that normal codes of conduct, social mores, laws, and ethics are Christopher Browning wrote in his book Ordinary Men:

“I fear that we live in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, in which the powers of government mobilization and legitimization are powerful and increasing, in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization, and in which the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. In such a world, I fear, modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts for being unable to induce “ordinary men” to become their “willing executioners.” 

My question is: when the crisis finally comes, what will Americans do?

I want to be hopeful. I am not a fatalist. I believe that we can all given the opportunity rise to greatness and defend our Constitution, civil liberties, and embody the principles of the Declaration of Independence. It has happened before. But that being said human history, especially the history of the past century shows us that more often than not that most people do not rise to the occasion. Snyder wrote:

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

In our time that is the most important consideration.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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1 Comment

Filed under History, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

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