Whether you view the legal process that occurs when a new reformist or revolutionary or counterrevolutionary regime takes power as engaging in a process of building up a new structure or sliding down a slippery slope, whatever the case, the process is critical, and, as a process, the early steps are most critical. Almost anyone can view the ultimate depravity of a Stalinist or Somocista regime…the way such a regime warps the means of legal process for unprincipled ends…as unjustified and undesirable and counterproductive from the perspective of social good.
But politics does not in practice present such clear choices; rather, one has a new group of evidently sincere and hard-working folks trying to achieve something and facing social, political, and legal obstacles. Perhaps the possibility of terrorism exists.
So what to do? Do they allow a potential terrorist to live free another day or round up hundreds of peaceful citizens who have the temerity to voice criticism? Do they cut a few innocent corners on constitutional guarantees of civil liberties and start listening to domestic phone calls without warrants, checking out what books intellectuals and other potential trouble-makers check out of the library, amass lists of social workers who advocate environmental protections? Aren’t these specific items quite innocent? Wouldn’t cutting these specific corners enable the protection of society, the preservation of democracy, the elimination of a terrorist threat here, a slowing of the process of reform/revolution/counter-revolution there? Are we to slow the pace of politics just to preserve some theoretical principle of freedom? Do we who now have power even have the moral right to allow some academic theorizing to get in the way of the change we have promised to offer to the people?
To answer these questions, it is necessary to examine the initial steps up the reform ladder or, depending on your point of view, down the slippery slope toward totalitarianism. The emphasis here is on “initial steps,” not the extremes of abuse of power that are obvious to all in the most extreme cases. What abuse of power in human history do you find the most egregious? Is is Stalinism, Maoism, Nicaragua’s Somoza, Dominican Republic’s Trujillo, Chile’s Allende? Whatever your choice, studying the standard histories, which focus on the well-known extremes, will teach you little of practical value for preventing such evil from reoccurring. You must examine the initial steps they took, the little unrecorded details at the beginning that historians hardly ever even hear about. The invaluable gift conferred to the world by Solzhenitsyn is his recording of these details, these first steps: this is the place you must look to find warnings of practical value for uprooting in your own society that immortal weed, abuse of power.
In a marvelous little chapter entitled “The Law as a Child,” Solzhenitsyn identifies, via a series of historical anecdotes about long-forgotten legal cases from the first years of the communist revolution just following World War I a series of crimes that the new regime, in the struggle to define a legal system, identified as meriting the severest punishments:
- Assembling the people and proceeding in a crowd with a petition ;
- Appealing to the people to resist governmental requisitions ;
- Dispatching of petitions to the government ;
- Gathering together ;
- When gathered, familiarizing themselves with one another’s point of view ;
- Reaching agreement about the desired structure of the new regime ;
- Inaction .
Such “crimes” are the cobblestones with which the road to totalitarian evil is paved. There is no such thing as “left” vs. “right” in politics. The political spectrum in truth is circular – freedom at one point on the circle and a gradually rising abuse of power regardless of which direction you move. The initial steps toward abuse of power are not restricted to liberals or conservatives, Marxists or caudillos, revolutionaries or counter-revolutionaries. Initial abuses of power that grease the way for more serious abuses can be found in democracies resisting terrorism, Islamist crusades against foreign interference, conservative military resistance to peasant revolts.
The number of places such initial steps can be found is amazing: imagine, for a moment, the perspective of a fisherman in Gaza murdered by Israel for launching his boat or a Contra investigator trying to prevent his rebel comrades from abusing peasant girls or an Afghan who sees the Taliban evolve from preventing mujahideen rapes of school girls to throwing acid in the faces of school girls or an Iraqi watching the American bombing of hospitals in Fallujah. Abuse of power is a weed that grows everywhere; the shoots spring from the political soil invisible to all but a few with exactly the right perspective; the longer the shoots of these weeds survive, the faster they grow. Slowly, only very slowly, do they become visible to all, and by then, it is too late.