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How Police States Are Born

It’s amazing how often history repeats itself in things both small and large.

I recently ran across one of the small things in this passage from Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here:

“Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut ‘Liberty cabbage’ and somebody actually proposed calling German measles ‘Liberty measles’?” (Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (2005 ed.) p. 17, originally published in 1935.)

Can I interest you in some “freedom fries”?

There’s a situation that’s been brewing for quite some time in Maricopa County, Arizona. Although more than one of my friends have blogged about it, including Scott Greenfield (criminal defense attorney in New York, New York), Brian Tannebaum (criminal defense attorney in Miami, Florida) and, particularly, Mark Bennett (criminal defense attorney in Houston, Texas), I’ve found myself wanting to delve a little deeper before tossing my hat into the ring.

Aside from my usual tendency to over-prepare for things, I think the reason is because early on I saw the connection between this and my beliefs about how police states are born. (Some) People I’ve talked to about this scoff, but I believe we’re living in a nascent — maybe “prenatal” — police state in America right now.

And I wanted to dig into this a little more; not just to discuss Maricopa. I wanted to show exactly why Maricopa and Chief Arpaio are so scary.

Police states, as I’ve said before, don’t spring into existence fully-formed, as Athena did from the forehead of Zeus.

First, there is the beginning of a gradual, even imperceptible, erosion of “the rule of law.” After all, if the rule of law remains in place, the police state — which is a major tool for “the rule of man” — cannot come into existence. The erosion of the rule of law prepares the ground for the police state. If I were to stick to the allusion I made above of pre-natalism, I’d say “the erosion of the rule of law prepares the womb for the birth of a police state.”

Seen in this light, Maricopa is just another step in the transformation from the rule of law to the rule of man. It is a demonstration of fertility.

Once started down the path — once fertilization occurs — a symbiosis develops. The erosion of the rule of law is accentuated by the nascency — the beginnings — of the police state.

By the time the average person recognizes that a police state exists, it is too late. The police state has grown up enough to survive outside the womb. The rule of law is gone.

People don’t think about this much. Perhaps it’s because the so-called Godwin’s Law teaches that the minute you start to compare something or someone to Hitler and the Nazis, you’ve lost your argument. That’s usually — perhaps nearly always — true. But it cannot be always true because if it were, that would mean that there never can be anything that can compare in any way, shape, or form, to Hitler and the Nazis.

To believe that is not only stupid, it is the most surefire way to ensure that another Hitler, another Nazi Party, another repressive regime will “surprise” us. By refusing to consider how free democratic republics — such as pre-Nazi Germany was — turn into fascist dictatorships, we leave ourselves wide open to them. It’s like ignoring the obviously gravid woman and being surprised when her child is born. What? Did you think she was just fat?

The rule of law began taking hits almost from the time the Founders of the United States initially embraced it. The desire to control others, which is a necessary (but not sufficient) precursor to fascism, is not at all an abnormal desire. I’m not immune from it, however much I’d like to think I am, and neither are you.

Nor is the push to control always wrong. Nobody — and that includes me — wants to live in a completely anarchic society. No one — and that includes me — wants to see those who murder, rape, steal, or otherwise harm society freely roaming the streets, plying their illicit “trades.”

Unfortunately, it is here, where we are weakest and most emotional, that the Joe Arpaios of the world find purchase on our souls.

On a day in late October, suddenly striking in every city and village and back-hill hide-out, the Corpos ended all crime in America forever, so titanic a feat that it was mentioned in the London Times. Seventy thousand selected Minute Men, working in combination with town and state police officers, all under the chiefs of the government secret service, arrested every known or faintly suspected criminal in the country. They were tried under court-martial procedure; one in ten was shot immediately, four in ten were given prison sentences, three in ten released as innocent…and two in ten taken in the M.M.’s as inspectors.

There were protests that at least six in ten had been innocent, but this was adequately answered by [President of the United States] Windrip’s courageous statement: “The way to stop crime is to stop it!”

The next day, Medary Cole crowed at Doremus, “Sometimes I’ve felt like criticizing certain features of Corpo policy, but did you see what the Chief [as they called the President] did to the gangsters and racketeers? Wonderful! I’ve told you right along what this country’s needed is a firm hand like Windrip’s. No shilly-shallying about that fellow! He saw that the way to stop crime was to just go out adn stop it!” (Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (2005 ed.) pp. 206-207, originally published in 1935.)

With this — the illegal acts which “ended all crime in America forever” — the fascist President Windrip of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Heretemporarily beat down the concerns of ordinary Americans for what fascist tendencies he had already exhibited. Maricopa County residents — including, amazingly and shockingly, an attorney — approve of Arpaio’s actions and seem unperturbed by what they actually signify. Arizonans — not just those living in Maricopa County — are similarly pleased with Sheriff Arpaio for his attitude toward “criminals.” Nor is Arpaio himself apologeticfor his obvious abuses of power.

Nevermind that Arpaio’s tactics have brought widespread criticism from Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee (who well-recognize what happens when fascism goes unanswered), as well as the Arizona Ecumenical Council (a Christian group of churches) and the much-reviled protector of civil liberties, the ACLU.

This is how police states are born! These Arizonans and all who share their opinion about Arpaio are why it can happen here! As Doremus Jessup, the “hero” of Sinclair Lewis’s book noted:

“The tyranny of this dictatorship isn’t primarily the fault of Big Business, nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work. It’s the fault of Doremus Jessup! Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest.

“A few months ago I thought the slaughter of the Civil War, and the agitation of the violent Abolitionists who helped bring it on, were evil. But possibly they had to be violent, because easy-going citizens like me couldn’t be stirred up otherwise. If our grandfathers had had the alertness and courage to see the evils of slavery and of a government conducted by gentlemen for gentlemen only, there wouldn’t have been any need of agitators and war and blood.

“It’s my sort, the Responsible Citizens who’ve felt ourselves superior because we’ve been well-to-do and what we thought was ‘educated,’ who brought on the Civil War, the French Revolution, and now the Fascist Dictatorship. It’s I who murdered Rabbi de Verez. It’s I who persecuted the Jews and the Negroes. I can blame no Aras Dilley, no Shad Ledue, no Buzz Windrip, but only my own timid soul and drowsy mind. Forgive, O Lord!”

(Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (2005 ed.) p. 186, originally published in 1935.)

Hopefully, Maricopa County will turn out to be just another Beer Hall Putsch. But this does not mean we do not need to be concerned. Hitler’s push, after all, did not end with the putsch.

That was just the beginning.

It can happen here.

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