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Posted by gustav at 01:00PM, Tuesday, November 02nd, 2004

0, 1, or Many, and the "It Couldn't Happen Here" paradox

I was talking to a coworker today about last week's news-revelations about the American rendition and subsequent torture of the (innocent) German terrorism suspect to a CIA facility in Europe. My coworker was updating me on some aspects of the case that I hadn't heard -- how the suspect was reportedly turned away at the U.S. border when he flew back to give a press conference about his ordeal. I pointed out that that was politically convenient for the administration, and that that sort of border control (turning away artists critical of official policy) had been going on for a while now -- and that the U.S. was, more and more, starting to resemble a totalitarian, Stalinist state in that regard. Like many of the self-professed liberals I've talked to, he took umbrage at that suggestion. I responded by saying "But the techniques are all the same -- it's just the scale that's different." He admitted that that was the case, which got me wondering.

So many people seem easily offended when confronted by the notion that the U.S. fits the dictionary definition of fascism, or when I suggest that, since many of the techniques the GOP is currently using for torture and propaganda are modelled after Stalinist totalitarianism, we're becoming a Stalinist nation. I go through the specifics, and they agree with each one, but when we get to the end, they object that we're not frying six million Jews in ovens, or we're not marching hundreds of thousands to death camps in Siberia, so it's not the same. And this is the part that blows my mind.

Does anyone think that Hitler could have gained such pernicious support if he'd set out by saying "I want to incinerate all the Jews, gypsies, homos, and anyone who objects to me incinerating them?" Do people think that Germany transitioned instantly from being an average European country to a full-on concentration-camp-ridden fascist state? That sounds like a facetious question, but I'm serious, because talking to enlightened people, it really seems like they think that's exactly what happened. They're the first to agree that many of the individual actions our government is taking in our name -- extraordinary rendition, suspension of civil liberties, the Patriot Act, referring to environmental groups as terrorists, planting propaganda in domestic and foreign media -- are wrong and are indeed very similar to the techniques of Stalinist Russia and fascist Germany -- but they react viscerally to any suggestion that ties these separate incidents into a context -- to any suggestion that fascist actions add up to a fascist state.

Obviously there's a lot of denial going on. I certainly am not happy to say that the U.S., in the past five years, has evolved from a somewhat enlightened, prosperous, civilized Republic (albeit one in which corporations had far too much influence) into one marred by nationalism, where the Bill of Rights is suspended at the whim of an unaccountable executive branch proud to secretly torture people in the name of "freedom," supported by a Congress whose only rallying cry seems to be "The ends justify the means." But pretending that's not what's going on is exactly what helped autocrats like Hitler rise to power, in exactly the same way. By the time the evidence is unavoidable -- by the time you notice that your neighbors are disappearing, and start thinking maybe you're next -- it's far too late.

Back in my college algorithms class, we learned an axiom for software architecture, which was: there are three numbers that matter: zero, one, and many. The idea was that you design code to handle those cases. You care more about the difference between 0 instances and 1 instance of some arbitrary piece of data than about the difference between 35 and 25,000 instances -- or between 1,500 and 6,000,000. The rationale for this was that concentrating on the distinctions between a few and a bunch gets you into trouble: you make other architectural decisions, assuming that "a few" will always stay "a few," and then someone asks for a change here, the program grows, you start extending it, it handles larger and larger sets of data, and suddenly you're not dealing with "a few" any more. Because of those decisions you made way back when, which are now really hard to change, you're screwed: the architecture you've designed can't handle all that data, and your program is crashing.

The U.S. has released approximately 180 prisoners from Guantanamo Bay because it couldn't find evidence to hold them. The CIA is holding an unknown number more, a few of whom, like Khaled Masri, it has released after torturing, because it decided they were innocent. Where's the boundary between "a few" and "too many" for the average American? Will that mysterious number stay the same, or will it move with time, as we adjust to our new "freedom?" I have a hunch that, if I'd posed the question "how many innocent terrorism suspects is too many for the CIA to torture in secret," back in 1999 or 2000, the number Americans came up with might have been different than it is today. How big does it have to get before people start taking this problem seriously? 1000? 10,000? 100,000? 6,000,000? When they do, will there be time left to do anything about it?

What can we do about it now, before more innocent people are stripped, beaten, humiliated, drugged, and water-boarded, all in the name of American freedom?
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