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The Everyday Banal Cruelty of Authoritarianism

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It’s a well-established observation that the way that authoritarian regimes work is that people cooperate. They empower little people to be cruel and that is the base of governance. The same thing is happening with the rise of fascism in the United States. The everyday acts cruelty in enforcing Bannon’s Muslim ban are what makes one sick.

A week ago, men and women went to work at airports around the United States as they always do. They showered, got dressed, ate breakfast, perhaps dropped off their kids at school. Then they reported to their jobs as federal government employees, where, according to news reports, one of them handcuffed a 5-year-old child, separated him from his mother and detained him alone for several hours at Dulles airport.

At least one other federal employee at Dulles reportedly detained a woman who was traveling with her two children, both U.S. citizens, for 20 hours without food. A relative says the mother was handcuffed (even when she went to the bathroom) and threatened with deportation to Somalia.

At Kennedy Airport, still other federal employees detained and handcuffed a 65-year-old woman traveling from Qatar to visit her son, who is a U.S. citizen and serviceman stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. The woman was held for more than 33 hours, according to the New York Times, and denied use of a wheelchair.

The men and women who work for the federal government completed these and other tasks and then returned to their families, where perhaps they had dinner and read stories to their children before bedtime.

When we worry and wonder about authoritarian regimes that inflict cruelty on civilians, we often imagine tyrannical despots unilaterally advancing their sinister agendas. But no would-be autocrat can act alone. As a practical matter, he needs subordinates willing to carry out orders. Of course, neither Donald Trump nor Steve Bannon personally detained any of the more than 100 people held at airports over the weekend pursuant to the administration’s executive order on immigration, visitation and travel to the United States. They relied on assistance.

The men and women who reportedly handcuffed small children and the elderly, separated a child from his mother and held others without food for 20 hours, are undoubtedly “ordinary” people. What I mean by that, is that these are, in normal circumstances, people who likely treat their neighbors and co-workers with kindness and do not intentionally seek to harm others. That is chilling, as it is a reminder that authoritarians have no trouble finding the people they need to carry out their acts of cruelty. They do not need special monsters; they can issue orders to otherwise unexceptional people who will carry them out dutifully.

This is powerful stuff. It shows the need to fight fascism wherever we see it. This is one reason why protest is so necessary. It demonstrates that people will stand up to cruelty. Making these people pariahs, calling them out by name, this is a critical strategy to resisting fascism. After all, it took millions of collaborators for the Holocaust to happen. The Nazis ruled Paris with very few soldiers because so many France were willing to play along. The examples go on and on. It is fairly easy for a person to become a collaborator with dictatorship and evil if it is in their interests to do so and it so often is because it is easy and allows them to be little dictators on their own. Fighting this is a central struggle in the next four years and probably for the rest of our lives.

Meanwhile, who is shocked that Bannon is front and center with the most revanchist forces in the Catholic Church. I know that Government by Torquemada is a good slogan for me!

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