“I don’t think we would react to the Abu Ghraib images now the way we did in 2004.”
Naomi Wolf issued the indictment after a speech that explained to members of The Denver Forum why the United States is headed the way of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia.Torture photos from an Iraqi prison that set off a national scandal three years ago would not bother us so much these days, Wolf insisted.
The 44-year-old author was in town to promote a new book, but also to issue the call for a grassroots groundswell of democracy to take back individual rights stripped away since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq.
If there is a barometer of the country’s willingness to do that, it is Americans’ tolerance for torture. And there is not much good news on that front.
“This is where empathy is the great self-preserver,” said Wolf, whose new book “The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot” has risen to 13th on the New York Times bestseller list. “Once the state starts to torture people, there’s a coarsening.”
Wolf’s book is a plea not to become desensitized. She examines what she calls the 10 steps that always occur where totalitarian governments replace democracies. She finds them all in America’s recent history.
There is the exploitation of a terrifying threat to justify repression.
Think “al-Qaeda is coming; al-Qaeda is coming.”
There is the establishment of secret prisons that operate outside the law and the establishment of military tribunals.
Think Guantanamo Bay and secret star chambers to determine people’s fate.
There is the ability to unilaterally declare someone an enemy of the state and imprison them for years without charging them.
There is the development of a paramilitary force.
The totalitarian Top 10 list goes on to include surveillance of ordinary citizens, infiltrating citizen groups with government agents, arbitrarily detaining and releasing citizens, targeting key individuals, restricting the press, telling people that criticism equals espionage and dissent equals treason and finally, that all time favorite, subverting the rule of law.
Interestingly, torture is not on the list. But it is woven through the whole fabric of what Wolf calls “the closing down of democracy.”
The author, whose earlier bestselling books dealt primarily with women, said she felt compelled to write this one because of what she heard from a friend whose parents were Holocaust survivors and because of a young couple she knew from mentoring in a women’s leadership group.
Wolf looked at Germany in the 1930’s, Russia in the 1940’s, East Germany in the 1950’s, Czechoslovakia in the 1960’s, Chile in the 1970’s and China in the 1980’s. She saw way too much of the United States in the 2000’s.
“Am I saying that George W. Bush and his team are setting in place the bulwark of a violent police state?” Wolf said. “I don’t have a smoking gun. But I do have masses and masses of evidence.”
What she’d like to attract now are masses and masses of people to a group called the American Freedom Campaign or its conservative counterpart, the American Freedom Agenda.
Wolf’s audience at The Denver Forum was predominantly liberal. But she aims to team with such libertarians as Andrew Sullivan and ex-Congressman Bob Barr to re-establish legal principles breached by warrantless wiretaps, indefinite detentions without charges, abductions and torture.
This is not patriotism, said Wolf. It is abuse of power.
Still, politicians fear the label “soft on terror” so much that it took until last week to finally get all the would-be Democratic presidential candidates to sign the American Freedom Pledge:
“We are Americans, and in our America we do not torture, we do not imprison people without charge or legal remedy, we do not tap people’s phones and emails without a court order, and above all we do not give any President unchecked power.
“I pledge to fight to protect and defend the Constitution from assault by any President.”
Democratic frontrunners Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were the last holdouts to endorse this statement of fundamental American principles, Wolf said.
Now, she and her group are on to would-be Republican presidential candidates, most of whom have endorsed “stress positions,” “water-boarding” and other buzzwords for torture.
This battle will not go to the meek, Wolf warned her Denver audience.
Democracy, she said, will return only “when millions of citizens rise up” above party lines and political labels.
It may take a village to raise a child. But it will take a nation to reclaim the Constitutional rights that separate American democracy from a budding dictatorship.