A man identified as Bruno D. was convicted on Thursday of being an accessory to 5,232 murders. He had been an SS guard at the Stutthof concentration camp during World War II, and by German law was thus eligible for prosecution for the deaths at the camp during his time there. Because he was only 17 at the time of his post, he was tried in juvenile court despite being 93 years old.
His defense had argued Bruno D. not only could not have prevented any of the deaths, but also that he could not have escaped his situation without being detained and probably killed. The prosecution pointed out that at no time did he so much as investigate ways that he might have been able to be reassigned, and that while he might not have known with certainty the ways in which many of his charges were dying, there were ample suggestions of them. Ultimately, he received a guilty conviction and a suspended sentence of two years… a paltry sentence, but a damning confirmation of his complicity and one which will hang over him for much, if not all, of his time remaining on Earth.
Bruno D. had been, at the time of his guard duty, exposed to Nazi propaganda for at least ten years and very plausibly longer. He’d joined thinking that he was doing his part for the good of his country and for people in general.
For decades, we have heard words to the effect of “it can’t happen here” when considering events like Nazi Germany or the Cambodian killing fields. Even in those instances where the opposite is implied (“They say it can’t happen here…” the announcer intones across the end of the movie) there is a sensation that it’s got an addendum, that the warning is nothing more than the mostly-false scare one receives from a roller coaster. (“They say it can’t happen here… and it can, theoretically, but realistically it can’t.)
Nationalism tells us that the reason we can’t devolve into authoritarianism is our people, or our history. Look at what our forebears accomplished! Look at all that we have, all of the information, all of the training, all of the weaponry! Look at our enumerated rights! We would never allow ourselves to embrace dictatorial rule!
Nationalism, as has been demonstrated repeatedly, lies. People are similar throughout the world… no one place has a monopoly on brilliance or gullibility. When adjusted for factors like proper nutrition and sleep, North Korea likely has a similar percentage of geniuses as does any other country in the world. (They have fewer mentally handicapped, because those are killed.) Intellect alone does not keep someone free from the effects of propaganda.
What keeps us free is our structure of law. We have a government in place which is designed to maintain our freedom, and laws to enforce the governmental system. Even in times where people are wont to grant more power to authorities, our system is designed to prevent it. Not merely the well-known “checks and balances” we are taught in elementary school, but the laws themselves.
Checks and balances minimize the likelihood that a President and a Senate Majority Leader will collude to pack the courts and jointly seize power. It is unlikely that a Senate Leader – in theory, at the time of the writing of the Constitution, a man who was beholden not to the people of his state but to the state legislature – would willingly risk ceding all power of his state to a single Federal authority. But it was possible, and it seems to have happened. What remains is a legal system which requires any judge appointments to happen on a case-by-case basis, and legal challenges to any examples of executive overreach.
The law slows the process down long enough for voters to get involved. If the voters are willing to accept a dictatorial shift, though, it can happen. Our system doesn’t protect us, it merely provides us with an opportunity to protect ourselves.
The risks will remain, even if Trump is ousted… and not merely from the Republicans who will attempt to rally Americans who have been propagandized into not merely accepting but cheering the deployment of private militias onto American streets in an effort to suppress exercise of the First Amendment. It will come from the Democrats as well, as they always have… many of the same people who are correctly outraged about Trump’s actions were cheering on Obama when he spoke of having a pen and a phone to bypass Congress, because in their view “something had to be done and Congress wasn’t doing it.” And many of the Republicans – myself included – who supported Bush when he instituted the Patriot Act were of the opinion that no Congress would allow it to be weaponized against the American people… a view which was demonstrated to be hopelessly rose-colored. Then, I had Libertarian and Democrat friends alike cautioning me and I unwisely dismissed their concerns because I trusted my leaders, not merely the then-present ones but future figures, to act as responsible adults.
I expect (and pray) Trump will be decisively ousted in November, along with as many of his enablers as can be reasonably removed. This will not signal the end of my diligence. Instead, I will continue to be on guard against abuse and overreach. The lessons of the past few days in Portland, the last few years under Trump, and the last century’s excursions into nationalistic mass slaughter demand my vigilance.