Thursday, October 12, 2006

Fear and totalitarianism

On the way home from a lecture I listened to a public radio interview with a past and future Russian dissident. He was speaking in response to the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who'd crossed Putin many times. He described her compulsive courage, her perverse fearlessness. Then he was asked about his time in Gorbachev's prisons in the 1980s. He was tortured, of course. Hung by the neck until he became unconscious, expecting then to die. As he succumbed, he felt the joy of knowing he had defeated the regime. He had not broken. He was victorious.

His torturers resuscitated him and returned to their fun on other occasions, but he remained unbroken. In those days the US opposed torturing people, and the US joined in the international pressure that freed him and others. For a time he thought the old totalitarianism was gone, but now, of course it's back. He's a dissident again.

Fear, he said. Fear is everything in a totalitarian society. The torturers cannot tolerate the fearless.

Incredibly, but undeniably, the fearless exist. I assure you I am not among them, I merely stand in awe.

Will we need the fearless here? American democracy is far more fragile than we once thought it was. Anything could happen. Not yet, but if cowards like me go silent, we'll have moved a step closer.

No comments: