LI SHAOMIN’S "Jailers Who Thrive on Silence" (The New York Times, September 10) is a poised indictment by a man who knows totalitarianism first-hand. (China imprisoned Li, an American professor, from late February until late July on bogus spy charges.) One of its passages especially stands out:
A totalitarian government suppresses its people by singling out the most outspoken for persecution and thus causes the entire population to live in fear. Once a target is chosen, everyone is relieved—everyone except the victim, of course. Most people in these societies prefer to remain silent to avoid attention or persecution. But of course, it never stops with just the outspoken ones. Eventually, those accused of lesser crimes are taken away, too. No one can escape.
Political omnipotence thus depends upon repressive deterrence. Since human beings will not naturally embrace enslavement, they must be methodically terrorized into docility. Felix Dzerzhinsky, chairman of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counterrevolution and Sabotage (better known as the Cheka), boasted in 1918, "We are terrorizing the enemies of the Soviet government so as to suppress crime in the embryo." ("Crime" would include disagreement with Bolshevism. The Cheka became the GPU, OGPU, NKVD, and KGB.) Lenin prescribed in 1922, "The courts must not abolish terror…they must provide grounds for it and legalize it in principle, clearly, without any hypocrisy or embellishment. The law must be worded to cover as much as possible." (For further discussion, see Mikhail Heller’s chapter "Fear," in Cogs in the Wheel: The Formation of Soviet Man.)
Thomas Paine anticipated totalitarianism’s scientific repression in The Rights of Man: "It is over the lowest class of mankind that government by terror is intended to operate, and it is on them that it operates to the worst effect." In a totalitarian regime, dissidents constitute the lowest class of mankind.
For instance, to be a dissident in Cuba is to be part of the "anti-social elements" and escoria (scum). These aspersions aim to demonize reformers and deny their sanity. Madmen and enemies of the homeland do not warrant consideration, much less respect. (Representatively, Fidel Castro has denigrated prisoner of conscience Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet as a "crazy little man." After his imprisonment in November 1999, Castro’s KGB attempted to subject Biscet to psychiatric examinations. On Cuba’s Soviet perversion of psychiatry, see Charles J. Brown and Armando M. Lago’s The Politics of Psychiatry in Revolutionary Cuba.)
Discussion of foreign despotism may seem impertinent after September 11, but now is the most important time to maintain the heat on slave regimes. Tyrants believe they can go into oppressive overdrive during a crisis. Dissidents can be badgered and beaten without fear of exposure and censure since free peoples’ focus is elsewhere.
Before Li pointed out the correlation of silence to totalitarian reinforcement, Frederick Douglass observed in 1846:
Slavery is one of those monsters of darkness to whom the light of truth is death. Expose slavery, and it dies. Light is to slavery what the heat of the sun is to the root of a tree; it must die under it. All the slaveholder asks of me is silence…The slaveholders want total darkness on the subject. They want the hatchway shut down, that the monster may crawl in his den of darkness, crushing human hopes and happiness, destroying the bondman at will, and having no one to reprove or rebuke him.
Abolitionists such as Douglass, Charles Lenox Remond, and Henry Highland Garnet did not advance emancipation by ignoring slavery. There is no salutary neglect when it comes to mass robbery of personhood.
Today’s slave masters do not deserve silence and darkness. The Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, and their brutal brethren should be incinerated by the sun.