From Liberty Street: Dangerous Loomings

John Turner

A headline in the Burlington Free Press yesterday proclaimed: "Americans See Gloom, Doom in 2007." I must say, if that's the public mood, I'm, for once, in line with it. I have never before felt such a sense of public threat. And it has nothing to do with foreign terrorists.

The obvious question is whether it comes from personal conditions, getting older and so forth, or whether it arises from actual changes in public life. I suppose, like most such queries, the answer is a little of both. Yet, I'm pretty sure that real shifts are the main source.

I had a strong reaction to watching my daughter being ushered through the security gates as she boarded a plane a couple days ago. A woman unceremoniously seized her purse, rummaged roughly through it, and threw away a small tube of lip moistener. A thing of that sort would have been unimaginable when I was my daughter's age. Yet, now, few seem to think anything of it. It's just the way things are, we say. We all know it has nothing to do with actual security. It's just the way things are. And most of us accept it. I wonder if there's anything we won't accept.

Former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges is writing a book titled, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. I used to think of the people Hedges reports on as mere clowns, but he says they are now, more and more, in control of American police forces and military units. In an article previewing the coming book, Hedges speaks of a major "effort to politicize the military and law enforcement.  This effort signals the final and perhaps most deadly stage in the long campaign by the radical Christian right to dismantle America's open society and build a theocratic state."

Last week in the Washington Post, Megan Greenwell had a story about James E. Dean of St. Mary's County, Maryland who was killed by state troopers. Dean was in despair about being recalled into the army after having completed an honorable tour. He got drunk and barricaded himself in a cabin. His family pleaded with the police to let them talk to him. His grandmother, in particular, was sure she could talk him into coming out. But the cops couldn't be bothered with Dean's family. They decided the best thing to do was to kill Dean, so they did.

In Slate, Dahlian Lithwick published an article titled "The Bill of Wrongs," listing ten "outrageous violations of civil liberties." One involved the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui. The federal attorneys wanted to kill him not because he had anything to do with the attacks of September 11, 2001, but simply because he wished he did. Wishing the wrong thing is now in the mind of the Justice Department a capital offense.

Popular culture is reflecting the tone of many of these developments. The most discussed movie at the beginning of the year will be Children of Men, a tale of a dystopia just twenty-two years in the future. In this story, from a novel by P. D. James, the whole world has plunged into nasty authoritarianism because the human race has mysteriously been rendered sterile,  and the thought of open, free politics has been washed out the public mind. England is governed by a warden.

I realize that no matter how many signs of this sort one encounters they can all be dismissed as anomalies, little freaks of bad thought and bad behavior that are bound to erupt now and them in a complex world. And maybe that's all they are. Even so, I know this. When a society goes rotten, it happens suddenly. Forces that were formerly just warts on the social visage leap suddenly into command. I'm not ready to predict we are near to such a transition. But there have been enough examples to place us on alert. I hope that 2007 will follow up the election of 2006 with a dismantling of the dictatorial trappings and police state apparatus that have blossomed among us recently.

Psychologist Robert Jay Lifton says that the greatest need contemporary society has  is the ability to imagine reality. I don't think we've done enough work imagining what our lives and the lives of our children would be like if we allowed the forces of repression and rigid religiosity to seize control of the social network. I don't want to see a time when people will be saying, I wish I had seen it coming. And if you'll think about it, and activate your imagination, I doubt you do either.

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Harvard Square Commentary, January 1, 2007