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October 10, 2017

Fear Leads to Fascism

In an emergency, we’re used to giving up some liberties. If you’re in a fire, you do what the firemen say. In general we obey police orders. A city can impose a curfew to protect lives and property. A mandatory evacuation order can be given. In an extreme, marshal law can be declared and most civil liberties suspended (Lincoln did that).

There’s probably something in primate DNA which suspends our usual obstreperousness and makes us take orders in a dangerous situation.

But there’s a dark side to this survival trait: when we’re afraid, we forget that we want to be free. We listen for a strong voice, look for a master who will protect us, and focus on the immediate danger which has frightened us rather than the long-term risk that our protector will become a tyrant.

I saw this danger first hand a long, long time ago in 1968 when I was a National Guardsman mobilized for the Chicago Convention riots. We were stationed in our armory which abutted a park in the then-decayed northwest side of the city. We patrolled the park because that’s what soldiers do and because our helicopters landed there. It was hot, boiling hot. We were heavily armed.

 “I’m so glad you boys are here,” an old lady said. “We haven’t been able to come to the park at night for years.” She was Polish; her children had long since gone to the suburbs. The neighborhood was definitely not Polish anymore. And it wasn’t safe for her. She was happy to have an army on her street. We were no threat to her. We made her safe. She wasn’t worried about a civil society. She was afraid.

Mary and I bought our first handgun the day after the first night we spent in an isolated summer home. All the talk in the neighborhood was about the armed robbery that had just occurred at the drugstore. We weren’t giving up our freedom; but we also weren’t confident that government could protect us from the special danger addicts present. We acted (rationally, I think) but out of fear.

The City of Burlington can’t figure out how to protect its citizens – or even its police – from a group of dangerous miscreants in City Hall Park. Calling a social worker instead of a cop doesn’t work; but the cops are expected to act like social workers. Meanwhile people aren’t as safe as they should be downtown. People who are afraid will vote for drastic solutions (see election 2016).

The US is at danger from a North Korean sociopath armed with nuclear weapons and delivery systems. The North Korean arsenal has grown from test devices to a serious threat during Republican and Democratic administrations alike. It must be dealt with. Americans - afraid of an increasingly dangerous world including ISIS, Iran, North Korea and, of course, homegrown terrorists of the right and left and demented killers - elected Donald Trump. Will he over react? Is over reaction or under reaction more dangerous now?

This is a dangerous time for the country. To survive as the kind of civil society we want to be, we must both avoid over reaction and avoid under reaction to evil, which leaves people afraid. We do have to make our streets safe (yes, that means patrolled by police); we do have to take violent people off the streets no matter what mental illness, addiction, childhood experience made them dangerous; we must confront nations and non-nations which threaten us with harm.

Those of us inclined to vote for leaders who think dialog is always better than confrontation must think of the harm that ducking confrontation may cause. Those inclined to vote for authoritarians because we’re frightened need to realize authoritarians don’t give up power lightly. We all need to work for and find pragmatic candidates who know there are no easy answers; that not acting is itself an act.

A frightened electorate will vote for frightening leaders. Leaders who don’t keep us safe pave the way to despotism.

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