Books: 'The End of America'
Thursday, September 27, 2007; 12:00 PM
Author Naomi Wolf, famous for her 1991 feminist book " The Beauty Myth," was online Thursday, Sept. 27 at noon ET to discuss her new book, " The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot," which examines how recent political developments in the U.S. parallel those seen in earlier foreign governments as they descended into totalitarian states. The book also prescribes methods Americans can use to avoid a similar fate.
The transcript follows.
Naomi Wolf: Good afternoon everyone. I want to summarize why I believe we are facing a real crisis. My reading showed me that there are 10 key steps that would-be despots always take when they are seeking to close down an open society or to crush a democracy movement, and we are seeing each of those in the US today. The first step is to invoke an internal and external threat - often a real one. The second is to establish secret prisons where torture takes place. The third is to build a paramilitary force. The fourth is to create a surveillance apparatus trained at ordinary citizens. I will stop there and respond to questions but you can see from just this beginning why there is cause for alarm.
Alexandria, Va.: I was born and raised a conservative Republican, and it has taken me a two-year term of service in this administration to make me realize that what you warn us about is literally all true right now. At the second-highest level in the White House, I have heard special assistants to this president make exactly the statements you have reported. You could have been in the room. Thank you, more than you know, for writing this book.
Naomi Wolf: Thank you for this. This issue is so much one that transcends partisanship. I am hearing probably from even more concerned Republicans than I am from Democrats and independents. This abuse of power is something that the Founders foresaw and it should horrify any true conservative as well as all of the rest of us. I just heard from a high-level government employee, after a reading I gave in the D.C. area, that he is torn because of new security dossiers that he is forced to sign onto. He, a Republican, said that it feels like the identity cards of the early years when the National Socialists put pressure on what was then a parliamentary democracy. Another senior member of the Justice Department e-mailed me that after she advised her colleagues that they should not torture John Walker Lindh, and that a lawyer should be present when they interrogated him, she found that she was the target of a criminal investigation and she was put on the Transportation Security Administration Watch List. In a closing society, it doesn't matter if you are Republican or Democrat or guilty or innocent. When certain tipping points have been reached, no one is really safe.
Silver Spring, Md.: Just wanted to say that I loved your appearance on "The Colbert Report". You raised some interesting issues about what our government is doing in the name of security. On the show you brought up secret prisons. Do you think it makes a difference that the secret prisons are overseas and do not hold U.S. citizens? How do you respond to critics who say such prisons do not effect citizens here at home?
washingtonpost.com: CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons (Post, Nov. 2, 2005)
Naomi Wolf: Great question. Every major dictator creates a secret prison system where torture takes place and then creates military tribunals that strip prisoners of due process. Lenin pioneered this, Mussolini developed his own version, Hitler studied Mussolini and Stalin studied Hitler. What always happens especially in a closing democracy is that the first people to be tortured are those mainstream society does not identify with -- anarchists and communists in Germany; scary brown people with Muslim names in Guantanamo. But then there is always a blurring of the line and abuse is increasingly directed at those closer to the heart of mainstream society. It was predictable from the blueprint that a white English speaker would be among the first to be tried by the military tribunals. And that happened. Now an American questioner has been tasered right on schedule according to the blueprint. The U.S. citizen danger is that the White House now claims the right to call you or me an enemy combatant no matter if we are totally innocent and hold us in solitary confinement in a 10-foot square cell for up to three years. Psychiatrists know this treatment makes sane people permanently insane. So that is the danger to us. History shows it takes only a handful of such arrests to silence dissent even without a formal coup.
Washington: Ms. Wolf, you have a fascinating thesis and I look forward to reading your book. My question is, do you think the next president will be able to avoid the temptation to use the expanded powers of the Oval Office that Bush/Cheney have demanded and largely gotten? And do you think Congress successfully can cage an executive branch run amok? Thanks for taking questions!
Naomi Wolf: Such a great question, thank you. The historical blueprint shows that we can't count on a simple transparent election in 2008. The end of my book plays out a series of "what-ifs" -- all of which are possible and even predictable now, that can fatally corrupt the next election. So we have to act now, because democracy simply cannot work as it has until we change some key laws. If you go to this Web site, you will see a 10-point legislative package that we have to pass in order to stabilize democracy enough to even have a meaningful election. If we don't, the blueprint shows the likelihood of more demonstrators being hurt, as in Myanmar today; more hyped threats in the months leading up to the election, and more aggressive harassment of activists such as the emerging stories of the disappearing emails and text messages of groups such as NARAL and Truthout.org. If the next president could be conceivably elected from another party I still believe that these powers would corrupt a President Obama or a President Hillary as profoundly as they would corrupt anyone. The Founders knew that human nature abused power when it was unchecked and that is why they set up our system as they did.
New York: How do you think a free society becomes so complacent? Is it because the changes are so gradual, or because the necessary laws were passed when the iron was hot? I remember reading that the the Patriot Act was passed with record-setting swiftness after the Sept. 11 attacks and obviously had been penned ahead of time in preparation.
Naomi Wolf: I have to say, my faith in America is confirmed by these wonderful questions from across the political spectrum. We have been sort of asleep at the wheel. In some ways it is understandable; we have been blessed with over 200 years of a strong democracy. But now we live inside what I call a "democracy myth" -- the idea that democracy will protect us without our lifting a finger or turning our attention away from "American Idol." The Founders knew how fragile democracy was and how powerful despotism can be when certain protections are breached. The other reason we are slow to get it has to do with shock -- in the wake of Sept. 11 we were scared to take a broader view. That is why history is so important to remind ourselves that for instance, both Stalin and Pinochet invoked real terrorists to close down their societies; to remember that after an attack on the German Parliament the German members of Parliament were so traumatized that they passed laws giving the State power to open people's mail, to restrict assembly, to listen in to phone conversations and to restrict civil liberties and they did so in the name of patriotism. These parliamentary leaders were not National Socialists but these acts that weakened a living Constitution opened the door for the Nazis legally to then pass laws that subverted the rule of law.
Anonymous: Naomi, I just happened upon this chat and am so happy that I did. I am a great admirer of your work and am thrilled that someone is attempting to shout from the rooftops about what is certainly the beginning of the end of America as we know it. My question is, how much responsibility does the disengaged electorate have? There are the extremes on both sides, of course -- who are very vocal -- but for the most part Americans seem far more interested in the following latest celebrity scandal than protecting their own rights. How do we as a nation change what we have become?
Naomi Wolf: Again thanks so much. This is the key question because we really are in a war -- a war to save our liberty -- and every single person is needed. Also, the Founders did not anticipate that we would turn over the defense of democracy to a pundit class or a constitutional scholar class -- they expected every single one of us to take on the patriots' task and defend liberty. The way I have found it effective to wake people up to how personal the danger is is by connecting the dots to show it in personal terms. The Fourth Amendment isn't some abstraction -- it is what keeps agents of the state from breaking into your home as they did Brandon Mayfield's and going through your and your children's stuff and dragging away your computer or worse. "Due process" isn't a dry formality -- it is what protects you from being beaten in prison the way activists were in the late teens when seized without warrants under the 1917 Espionage Act, an act that this White House is invoking against journalists. When I got up to Vermont to copyedit my book, I opened the suitcase which held my computer to find a letter from the TSA among my personal possessions. I reported out the TSA Watch List and found critics ranging from Richard Murphy, the foremost constitutional scholar of the nation, to senior guys in the military who had been critical of the war were now on the Watch List. So people get it when you explain it in these terms that they themselves and their families are in danger unless we restore the rule of law right now.
Princeton, N.J.: "In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist; and then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist; and then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew; and then ... they came for me ... and by that time there was no one left to speak up." -- Martin Niemoller
Naomi Wolf: So important to remember. Martin Niemoller was an outspoken minister who was imprisoned by the National Socialists. This is just how it works. I challenge all of us to identify a society that built a secret prison system where torture takes place that did not eventually turn state violence against domestic critics. I have been asking this question nationally for about a month and no one has presented an example because there isn't one. The temptation to intimidate the opposition is just too tempting if you have the power to harass them legally, arrest them or even hurt them. That's why it is so serious that we are seeing the increased use of the epithet "traitor" and the recent censure of a citizen's group by the state. The derailing of the careers of the JAG military attorneys is important too. We start to see ordinary Americans across the political spectrum begin to suffer career setbacks, legal harassment, intimidation, or worse -- and as I mentioned, the morning after someone I identify with is reported in The Washington Post as being held as an enemy combatant is the day I no longer will be having conversations like this one because I am not brave enough. That is how a democracy closes down.
Princeton, N.J.: I was reading a novel written before Sept. 11 that took place in Poland right before World War II. The Stalin government issued a communique that said "if we don't fight the extremists in Warsaw, we will have to fight them in Moscow." Kinda scary, eh?
Naomi Wolf: Great noticing, as I tell my children. My readers will know that we are now seeing not only certain key tactics reproduced from the great dictators of the twenties and thirties but we are actually seeing what seem to be recycled metaphors, photo-ops, sound bites and narratives that were first crafted in the past. A handful of these is chance but the fifty or sixty close echoes that my book presents readers with makes it hard to avoid the hypothesis that someone influential has studied history. Germany told citizens that it had to invade Czechoslovakia, a country with which it was not at war, because that nation offered Bolshevik terrorists a staging ground for attacks on the "Homeland" and because the Czechs were abusing their ethnic minorities, the Magyars and others. When the weapons of mass destruction allegation proved faulty, Rumsfeld told us that we needed to invade Iraq, a country with which we were not at war, because it served as a staging ground for terrorists and because of the abuse of Iraq's ethnic minorities, the Kurds. There are many such other close parallels. You all should look at "Triumph of the Will" and then look at "Mission Accomplished."
Lyme, Conn.: Have you looked at the issue of building a paramilitary with the extensive use of private soldiers in Iraq? There is a force estimated of between 20,000 to 50,000 security forces, many of whom are soldiers of fortune, who protect businesses yet have a legal right under immunity from the president to engage in combat.
Naomi Wolf: I have a whole chapter called "Develop A Paramilitary Force" which centers on Blackwater. You are so right about this threat. No one can take over a democracy, no matter how badly it is weakened, without a paramilitary force that bypasses the people's representatives and I am sorry to say no democracy can resist the pressure on it of a would-be despot that has developed such a paramilitary force. Again, Mussolini was the innovator with his black-shirted Arditi and Hitler as so often picked this up by deploying his brown-shirted SA. If you want another historical parallel, you should look at how these leaders directed groups of angry young men to intimidate people counting the vote in southern Italy and in Austria. Blackwater is in superficial trouble right now for shooting civilians in Iraq. What most Americans don't know is that Blackwater is already here at home -- Homeland Security gave them a massive contract to patrol the streets of New Orleans after Katrina -- and Jeremy Scahill reports that unnamed contractors did fire in the direction of civilians there. Blackwater's business model calls for more and more deployment here at home -- in the event of a natural disaster or in the case of a "public emergency." Scarily, the president now has the power to decide what a "public emergency" is all by himself. This is exactly what the Founders were terrified of because they knew how abusive a standing army was to the colonists; King George's men went through their possessions and raped colonial women. This is why the Founders swore that Congress should regulate military activity and why they made the National Guard answerable to the people. Blackwater's close ties to the White House strip all of us of Second Amendment protections and endanger us all in a very personal way.
Wilmington, N.C.: How do we get through to our friends and neighbors who support the authoritarian policies we are so concerned about? There is a fundamental difference in how they perceive current events; I find we mostly talk past each other. What insight can you offer on making the case for concern to someone who is barricaded in behind Rush Limbaugh-supplied talking points?
Naomi Wolf: I need to take the last question but please lets keep talking. You can reach me through the campaign's Web site. I want to end with a call to not just to you but to your friends and neighbors who are listening to Rush Limbaugh. I want to reach out to Rush Limbaugh and all the members of the press and Congress on the right. As I said good people across the political spectrum will, if they understand the real nature of this danger, want to unite in honor of the Founders vision and in opposition to a group of what are essentially criminals who systematically have manipulated our fears in order to dismantle the Founders' sacred legacy. I so believe this transcends partisanship, and I also know from history that there is no point on the political spectrum where safety actually lies if we keep going down this path. We need a democracy movement that united Americans of all parties; we need to pass the 10-point legislative agenda supported by conservatives and liberals alike; we need to tell all our congressmen on both sides of the aisle that we will not tolerate this push to a police state and we need to hold those who have betrayed the Founders vision accountable both politically and I believe, from looking at history, we also need to hold them accountable in the courts of law. The good news is that history shows that when good people rises in their millions to defend democracy, despots retreat and the rule of law can triumph. But the time is now.
Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.