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Sherwood Ross: Fear of Tyranny Sweeping America

Fear of Tyranny Sweeping America

By Sherwood Ross

Fear for their own personal security, so typical of a nation whose leaders are grasping for absolute power, has begun to grip broad segments of the American people.

In church this past Sunday one man spoke up during the “concerns” portion of the service, beginning, “ When the arrests begin I will probably be the first one picked up.”

He then went on to tell of a woman he knew recently released from a mental institution in Texas where, he said, the Federal government had locked her up for a year after she tried to show officials “proof” Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had no WMD.

I found this anecdote incredible until I recalled a recent reliable press account of a man arrested by the Secret Service merely for politely telling Vice President Cheney at a public appearance he disagreed with his policies.

Whether the story of the woman tossed into an asylum is factual, there are growing numbers of people who fear retribution for exercising their right of free speech. People warn their friends: Better not say that in public. Better not put that in writing.

After hearing the story of the woman’s arrest, a second congregation member stood up to warn dictatorships commit their dark deeds out of sight of the general public. He told of growing up in Argentina under the junta, oblivious to the fact the torture barracks was within a blocks of his home. Life, he said, went on normally even as people were murdered, and he prayed America would not suffer a like fate.

After the service, which was apolitical, still another church-goer circulated a petition opposing the Military Commissions Act, the one depriving arrested captives, according to Amnesty International, of “any opportunity for meaningful judicial review.”

Signers were not just reaffirming the idea of the golden rule. They were thinking what President Bush is doing to Guantanamo’s captives might also be done to them one day.

This fear is spurred by a growing mistrust of, and anger towards, the Bush White House. A majority of Americans, polls now tell us, think President Bush knew Iraq had no WMD when he made the war. In short, they regard the man as deceitful. And when people do not trust their leaders, they fear them and those they fear they also hate.

Columnist Molly Ivins three years ago wrote in “The Progressive” her reasons for hating President Bush. That feeling is spreading. Automobile bumper strips declare “Enough Bushit.” People commonly refer to Bush in conversation as “King George.” One Website dubs him, “The Smirking Chimp.”

(During the Civil War, when anti-Administration newspapers compared President Lincoln to an ape it was based on their view he was bungling the war rather than of any personal fear of the man.)

Among Democrats --- as among some conservative Republicans who feel their principles have been betrayed --- the fury toward the President is palpable. The New York Times reported Sunday, October 15th, “48 percent of Democrats say they are ‘more enthusiastic about voting than usual’” in the midterm elections. “Enthusiastic” isn’t the half of it. Many are enraged, reflected in the vitriolic mail piling up in Congress.

Gays, singled out for punishment by the Bush White House, are among the more apprehensive. Their concern is heightened by GOP-sponsored referendums prohibiting gay marriage, such as the one on the Virginia ballot. They worry about being officially stigmatized as second-class citizens. Liberals are also apprehensive. Some right-wing radio talk personalities use the word “liberal” much as Hitler used the word “Jews.”

Fear is also fueled by press reports about people being denied civil liberties, such as being kept from boarding an airliner without an explanation; of foreign scholars denied teaching opportunities here because of their views; of foreign students given no reason by State Department consuls for being denied the opportunity to study here.

Fear also spreads when public officials who speak the truth are demoted or dismissed. People become upset when a general who disagrees on Iraq tactics is booted and a high Army Corps of Engineers official is demoted for charging contracts are being let without competitive bids. There is a spreading belief the president has a vindictive streak and will punish anyone who opposes him. This has a chilling impact on free expression.

My own recollection is fear of President Bush today is infinitely greater than fear during the era of Senator Joe McCarthy back in the Fifties. McCarthy whipped up anti-Communist sentiment to paranoid heights but he was only a Senator. He couldn’t start a war on his own or reach out and have people arrested under any Patriot Act.

Now there is a president with virtual dictatorial powers who has deceitfully invaded Iraq, where reportedly 650,000 civilians have been killed for no good reason; who has threatened the use of nuclear weapons, who operates secret prisons around the world, and who implies his critics are unpatriotic. What’s his next step?

Yes, it is happening before our eyes: the nation that gave the world the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Four Freedoms, and played a large role in creating the UN Charter, is witnessing the evisceration of its civil liberties. Those who are beating the war drums about terror abroad may well be the first to unleash terror at home.

Am I scared? You bet. Gangrene spreads.


(Sherwood Ross is an American reporter. Reach him at sherwoodr1 @

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