Thursday, July 06, 2006

Fear and Intimidation

In the early part of the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, one of Hitler's tactics was to use people known as "Brown Shirts" to bring terror to his political opponents. All he needed to do was mention somebody's name in the right context, and the Brown Shirts would pay them a visit. Because of this, fewer people were willing to stand up against him, and he was better able to gain control of Germany.

Today, I learned of an organization that functions much like the Brown Shirts of Nazi Germany. These people think that they have a moral right and duty to rule by terror. We live in a climate where anybody who questions the legitimacy of the rising theocracy in this country -- like anybody who criticized the Nazi Party in Germany -- is routinely subject to death threats and actual violence.

Before I go further, I know that there are those who hold that any comparison to the Nazis must be a rhetorical -- something done by somebody who has stepped beyond the bounds of reason and into the bounds of emotion. Yet, clearly, it must be the case that there are things in the real world that are "like the Nazis." The Nazis were "like the Nazis," were they not? They were real. Where we can find one thing in the real world that is "like the Nazis," we cannot automatically dismiss a claim that there are others.

Glen Greenwald reports of several instances in which organizations have taken to the practice of publishing the names, addresses, maps with directions, photographs, and other identifying information of people taking actions that these organizations do not like. In doing so, they have become America’s equivalent of the Nazi Brown Shirts, displaying the same moral character and the same willingness to rule through fear and intimidation.

We may ask why these organizations have taken up the practice of providing all of this contact information for those they dislike.

I would like to get technical for a moment, because I would like to link my argument here to other moral concepts that I have used.

We know that revealing this contact information is a deliberate act. All deliberate acts aim to fulfill the desires of their agents (given their beliefs). We can then look for a theory of desires that best explains a body of intentional actions in the context in which they took place. Once we have a theory of motivating desires, we can ask about whether those are desires tend to fulfill (virtue) or thwart (vice) other desires. This tells us if these are the actions of people of virtuous or vicious moral character.

Long before there were concentration camps in Germany, there were laws that required Jews to wear a large, yellow, Star of David on their clothing. The reason for this was to mark these people for private vengeance. Once exposed in this way, the people so marked could be expected to be visited with all sorts of private violence by nationalist thugs who were told that these are traitors and the source of all of their woes.

This gives us reason to think that the intentional act of putting a mark on an individual for the purpose of making him the target of private violence is the mark of a vicious individual.

As an aside, I view the current model for the Pledge of Allegiance to fall into the same pattern. The purpose of the Pledge as it is now conceived is for those who do not wish to pledge allegiance to God to sit silently in class. However, this act is a blatant act of identification not unlike the Nazi practice of forcing their victims to wear a Star of David. This ritual simultaneously identifies a group of individuals as anti-American and unpatriotic, while it simultaneously requires those who fall into that category to identify themselves, thus teaching the other children where they should be targeting their nationalistic contempt.

In contrast, the virtuous person recognizes that there will be differences of opinion in any population, and a need for institutions and social customs that would allow individuals in that culture to express their opinions peacefully. Virtuous people would hold to a standard that the first person to step outside of a discussion of the peaceful debate of ideas within the legal institutions that exist, and to resort to private extra-legal violence and intimidation, is the wrongdoer.

The filing of a lawsuit is fully consistent with the idea of engaging in a debate of ideas within the legal institutions that exist. It is a way of saying, “I have an argument that suggests that this behavior is inconsistent with the laws and the standards that govern this country.” If somebody else has an argument that states, “No, it is not inconsistent with those laws and standards,” they are free to present their arguments in a court, where third parties hear their petition and seek to render a fair and impartial verdict as to which has the better case.

The virtuous person will focus on this debate by focusing on the ideas presented on either side. He will look at the arguments presented by the side he favors and explain how they have merit, and he will look at the arguments presented by the other side and explain where he sees flaws. However, the debate should never leave the realm where it is a discussion of idea.

The acts that I have referred to above violate these rules. Instead of talking about the merit or demerit of certain ideas, one side tries to win instead by threatening violence against any who present ideas they do not favor. They identify them by having them wear Stars of David, or remaining silent in a required ritual, or posting contact information on the internet, in a culture that suggests that expresses, at best, sympathy for and, at worst, heroic praise for those who take private vengeance against these targets.

There are some differences between the current system and that which the Nazis employed to obtain their positions of power. The contemporary American "Brown Shirt" does not wear a uniform and belongs to no official organization as such. Whereas the Brown Shirts of Nazi Germany acted much like a private army, their contemporary counterparts are organized more like the terrorist cell. These are really small groups that have organized themselves around common values, which happen to include the value of doing harm to those that “the Organization” tells them are “the Enemy.”

The leaders of this movement are well aware of the fact that these gangs exist and are waiting for orders. The leaders simply need a way to communicate those orders. They do so by posting their instructions on the Internet or in comments broadcast by news organizations such as Al Jazeera or Fox News. They do so simply by announcing in plain language, “This is who we hate today,” with the certain knowledge that the cells out there will get the message and act accordingly.

They may even state that “we do not condone violence.” However, this claim as the sincerity as the loan shark who says, “I don’t want to see you get hurt.” For all practical purpose, the statement can be translated as, “I would rather see you submit to my authority; however, if you do not wish to do so, I am willing to have you pay the price.”

The ultimate point is this: The person who publishes the contact information for opponents without their consent, in a context that invites private violence against those individuals, shows that he has abandoned interest in a contest over who can best defend their ideas, and turned it into a contest of who can best defend his life, health, property, and well-being. He has abandoned civil debate (which does not need to know the address and phone number of the person of either of the participants) and promoted a new social custom of domination through fear and intimidation.

If such a person does not like the fact that he can be compared to a Nazi Brown Shirt, then my advice would be to quit acting like a Nazi Brown Shirt.


Ginger said...

An excellent essay, sir.

Here is a link to today's New York Times' article about how the US Military is actively recruiting Neo-Nazis, skinheads, etc.

Scares the bejeepers out of me.

Daily Kos also has commentary about the article at

Anonymous said...

A small point. Hitler weent to the bathroom sometimes. You go to the bathroom sometimes. Therefore you are like Hitler. Now if you reject the comparison, I aske oyu to consider: Some people are like Hitler. After all Hitler was like Hitler. So if you want to stop my comparison of you with Hitler, then perhaps you should stop acting like Hitler.

My point is that there is something about Hitler, in virtue of which Hitler has become the symbol of depraved evil which he has become. And I assure you that it is not going to the bathroom sometimes. It was the fact that he orchestrated the deaths of millions of people.

The brownshirts were bad, not becuse they published some names, but rather because they were the instruments of terror, repression, and death. So if you find someone, or some groups who are the actual instruments of terror, repression, and lots of death, then it would be a reasonable comparison. Otherwise, you have a lot to answer for being just like Hitler.