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In The End Of America: Letter Of Warning To A Young Patriot, author and activist Naomi Wolf outlines the 10 steps involved in closing a democratic society, including establishing secret prisons, infiltrating citizens' groups, restricting the press, and placing ordinary citizens under surveillance. Assembling that list, she concluded that America is undergoing what she calls a "fascist shift." As she traveled around the country to speak about the book, Wolf encountered many citizens who were sympathetic to her ideas, but felt powerless.
This inspired her to write a follow-up, Give Me Liberty: A Handbook For American Revolutionaries. In it, she argues for a reinterpretation of our role as American citizens. She examines the original intentions of our founders and decides that "America" is an existentialist idea as much as a plot of land, and Americans have a duty to challenge threats to their liberty.
In the midst of the worst week in Wall Street's history, Wolf sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss the upcoming election, how Congress could legally be arrested by our own military, George W. Bush's coup, and the inevitability of a police state unless you do something about it.
The A.V. Club: As of October 1, 2008, the First Brigade of the Third Infantry has been deployed in the United States. Why should Americans be concerned?
Naomi Wolf: Wow. I guess it's sort of depressing to me that that's such a good question. [Laughs.] As I noted in Give Me Liberty, there's been a systematic propagandizing of American citizens for 30 years to make us forget what America is supposed to be and what our rights are and what our system is and what our core principles are. And one of them since 1807 has been this right that the founding generation put in place, to make sure that military troops would never, ever, ever be deployed in the United States of America for civilian policing. That was called the Insurrection Act, and later, the Posse Comitatus Act guaranteed this. Why was the founding generation so concerned? Because they had experienced firsthand how easy it is to intimidate and subdue a population. They experienced the deployment of George the Third's mercenaries, who were very abusive to colonists. They burst into people's homes without warrants, and that's why we have the Fourth Amendment preventing that. They intimidated people, they seized their possessions, they molested women, they terrified children—it's very, very difficult for people to sleep when there's a standing army in their midst. That's why the National Guard reports to the governor of a state, because the National Guard is answerable to the people. They're not a military force. Bush gutted both the Insurrection Act and Posse Comitatus, and Congress went along, foolishly. So now what he's doing is legal. [Congress repealed the alteration of the Insurrection Act and Posse Comitatus in early 2008, but when Bush signed off on the repeal, he released a statement saying that it "could inhibit the President's ability to carry out his constitutional obligations," so "the executive branch shall construe such provisions in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President." —ed.]
But why should we be scared? What people don't know is that the First Brigade doesn't answer to Congress. The First Brigade doesn't answer to the people of the United States. The First Brigade only answers to the President of the United States. So it's George Bush's private army. A brigade is three to four thousand people. These are troops that have been deployed in Iraq for the purpose of crowd control. Their stated mission here, according to Army Times, is crowd control, subduing unruly individuals, and helping in the event of an emergency. They're armed with lethal and non-lethal technology, which includes Tasers and rubber bullets. Tasers have killed 300 people. Rubber bullets are so lethal that Britain forbids them because they killed so many Irish people. They're also armed with tanks.
I asked Colonel [David] Antoon—who is an Air Force colonel. He's a very patriotic, very heroic military man, now retired. I asked him, "What happens if the president tells the First Brigade to shoot at civilians?" And his answer was, "They have to do it." I asked, "Can the First Brigade arrest Congress?" He said, "They have to if they're given orders by the president." "What happens to Congress then?" "They're at the mercy of military men." And I asked, "What if other military speak up and tell people to rebuke the order?" His answer was, "They'd get arrested."
When a leader has deployed a private army, that is one definition of a police state. Another is when the president, or a leader, has his own treasury, and that's why we have to take a close look at what's happening with this bailout bill. Historically, when a leader has deployed his own military against civilians, it's never been good. There's never been a time where it's ended well. He changed the law, so all of this is legal. If they disobey his order, they are facing five years in prison. This raises other questions, like, the president's lawyers have stated that the War on Terror means that the whole globe is a battleground. Legally, these are the laws of the war, as they write them. That's why they claim they can render people, kidnap people, torture people. Well, if the whole world is a battlefield, then the United States is also a battlefield. All of these are reasons that we should get how serious this is.
AVC: In The End Of America, you write: "Historically, the shift to martial law… generally takes place during a crisis. A crisis allows a would-be dictator even in a democracy to use emergency powers to restore 'public order.' This kind of thing won't happen in America." In light of recent events, would you revise that statement?
NW: Yes. I would clearly revise that statement. With the First Brigade deployed… and legally, he can deploy the whole goddamn U.S. Army in the streets of the United States now—nothing stops him, as I understand the law. He's the Commander-In-Chief. He can bring all the troops home and redeploy them, if he wants to, if I understand it correctly. He doesn't even have to formally declare a state of emergency. Karl Rove is so brilliant; this whole thing has been done by stealth. This whole thing has been done by degrees over many, many years. They changed the Insurrection Act a couple of years ago. They gave him these powers under the Patriot Act years ago. So he has managed to exert all of these powers, effectively a coup, unless we take our steps as free people. And I've been calling for the arrest and prosecution of these coup leaders. But he's done it all without the headlines. He's done it all legally, by stealth, by his directions. It's very possible for him to declare a state of emergency. If this [economic] crisis is a distressing one—a hyped threat with a crisis close to an election—I'm concerned about the Bush team. I'd like to call people's attention to the language that Bush used in his speech about the economic crisis, and that Palin used. Instead of saying, "Let's calm the markets. We'll get through this because of the steps we're taking…"—the kind of language FDR used, for instance, to stabilize things as much as possible in a similar emergency—Bush used language to make people as hysterical as possible; language that was most likely to destabilize markets. "This is going to come to a town near you! Your banks might collapse! It's gonna get worse and worse every day!" And Sarah Palin has been saying, "We're in crisis mode! We're in crisis mode!" with every other sound bite. That's one time she's managed to string two phrases together. [Laughs.]
AVC: Could this also be used by the president to call a state of emergency and postpone the election, or even dismiss the results if it doesn't turn out the way he wants it to?
NW: God forbid. I'm asking people to think critically and not to be lazy in their thinking. There's been all this legislation put in place, all these volitional acts over the course of seven years: pass the Patriot Act to give him these powers, change the Insurrection Act, get rid of Posse Comitatus, build up Blackwater, establish that Blackwater can operate outside the rule of law, deploy the troops, pass the Continuity of Government measures, pass Presidential Directive 51, which gives him total power in a state of emergency that he can declare. I mean, can we just err on the side of critical thinking and ask ourselves, "Are we not stupid or in denial to assume that all of this is done in a vacuum, or just randomly?"
In other words, all of my reading of history indicates that he has the power to suspend the election if it doesn't go his way. He has the power to corrupt the election. If people go to their voting place and get upset because hundreds of thousands of them are being deliberately purged from voting rolls through Republican malfeasance, they are unruly individuals. He has the power to send the First Brigade, or federalize the National Guard, to aggressively subdue those citizens. He has the power to do all of these things, and I guess I'm just trying to alert Americans to the fact that when you have all these steps taken by a leader who is seeking to crush a democracy—and I think the evidence is pretty much in, as of last year—I think we are beyond stupid if we go, "No, no, no. It's never happened here." That's what they want to do. He doesn't have to suspend the election; he could corrupt the election and arrest people who object, and the first voter who is Tased to death will subdue everybody else and keep everyone at home.
It's unbelievable what's going on. [New York City Mayor Michael] Bloomberg is going outside the will of the people and seeking a third term! He can say, "Emergency! We've got to amend the rules!" I can tell you that I was not reassured, knowing history, when John McCain said, "I'm suspending my campaign." That's kind of crazy. But remember that Karl Rove works through trial balloons—float it gently, then it's a precedent. I'm concerned that these are trial balloons for, "It's too dangerous. It's too unstable. We're suspending the election." I say, "God forbid," because while I'm sketching out all these very dark scenarios, the American people have power to stop this, to avert it.
AVC: Do you think at this point in history, Americans are too passive? Has this subversion of democracy become so gradual that we haven't noticed, or do we just not care?
NW: This is really why I wrote Give Me Liberty the way I did. I am worried that Americans I have met on my journey across the country, seem very hopeless and are feeling powerless to make change and are feeling passive. I'm not blaming them. But one thing we need at a time like this is for people to feel empowered and angry. We need people to be alert and thinking for themselves and connected to each other and connected to that sense of hope and empowerment and radical chutzpah that the founding generation had and intended us to have. We're really in the balance.
People could either choose to—and this is what happened in Germany and what happened in Italy; you see it again and again—turn away, or blame the messenger, or say, "Well, it's happening to those people over there. It's not touching me yet. I'll get through it. I'm hunkering down. I'm aligning myself with…" It is foolish for people to think they can align themselves and be safe in a police state. Again and again, people think, "Well, if I just do what this administration wants, I'll be safe." In a police state, there is no safety. They take out their own people all the time. Stalin did it. Hitler did it with Night Of The Long Knives. They're always purging their own colleagues, their own allies. But if people wake up, think critically, and get angry, we get connected to that courage that the founding generation meant us to have. History shows when millions just don't go along, resist at any level—and I'm talking about all the way up to bipartisan impeachment and arrest of the leaders of the coup—then it can't happen. But we have to act now. Especially conservatives and independents, they have to get it that these people are not conservatives, they're criminals. This is not about Republicans vs. Democrats; it's about a criminal regime against the people of the United States of America. They need to reach out to their leaders in Congress and their military and say, "Look. The coup has taken place. Arrest these people."
AVC: In the last third of Give Me Liberty, you outline ways in which citizens can organize and empower themselves to make these kinds of demands. But aren't people more likely to sit back and hope other people will do the hard work of defending freedom?
NW: What you've just said is both really, really true and really, really not necessarily true. We are all exhausted. Part of this empowering push of the special interests to get citizens to give up and shop and play videogames and yield their power, is people working two jobs and being exhausted, barely getting from paycheck to paycheck. It plays into it. Even people who are relatively privileged are exhausted and overstretched and think, "I'm not going to start a political movement. I'm not going to hold a town-hall meeting." I do think a lot of that is conditioning. It's also what we are trained to think of as socially normative and possible.
I don't mean to do this and be an annoying boomer, but the '60s and '70s—I grew up in the Haight-Ashbury—people around me were going to school by day and all night long having these incredibly exciting meetings, mobilizing, marching, drafting statements. It was very intoxicating. It was very energizing. We've really forgotten a lot of those skills. Or they haven't been transmitted. It's useful to the people controlling us to have those skills not be available. But I also want us to think, "How many hours a day are we watching TV? How many hours a day are we reading Gawker? How many hours a day are we isolated from one another?" When people get this consciousness of the way things are supposed to be in this country—that the locus of agency is in them, that they are supposed to be the ones setting the agenda—if people believe this, they get very energized. Yeah, it's annoying to have this extra burden of saving the country. [Laughs.] On the other hand, if I can convince people of anything, as annoying as you think any of this stuff is, it is not as bad as life in a police state. It's not like it's gonna go away. Like, people say, "Well, it will be bad for a few years and then it will go away." It's not gonna go away unless we take action now.
AVC: Do you think Americans largely rely on the idea that America can fix itself, because after all, it's America?
NW: They are counting on that. They are counting on us all having that reaction. I'm not judging. I don't want to be doing this. I want to be writing chick lit. [Laughs.] I don't want to be talking about these things. I don't want to be thinking about them. But, really, if each of us doesn't think, "Okay, it's down to me and my neighbors," then nothing good will happen. Okay, now I'm going to be really obnoxious: People who have come of age from the '80s on have experienced a form of activism that's very sterile and annoying. It's not that much fun to be an activist. That's partly by design. They are sterile protests and anonymous e-mail activism—not the kind of thing where people fall in love, form friendships for life, and see the change they make right in front of them. I've seen that, when people start to experience doing these things together and the power that it has.
AVC: But when you talk about movements in the '60s, you're talking about people who were dragged off to war by the draft to die for something they didn't believe in. In the '60s, it was pretty clear what was going on, so people acted accordingly. What you're talking about now is subversive, gradual, legislative threats to democracy.
NW: You're very right about that. That is the challenge, explaining to people that they are being knocked over the head, it's just that they're coming to get us through the back door under cover of night, in legislative darkness. You're right. I guess that's why I keep speaking and writing and speaking and writing, to convey it's a danger in a way even more serious than a war in a stable democracy that was sucking young men off to their deaths. It's insidious, but it's going to be much, much more dangerous. If this succeeds, we won't be able to end it legislatively without, God forbid, very scary conflicts. People have to understand the nature of the threat on a visceral level, and I do think the troop deployment, hopefully, is the thing that hits people over the head. But it's less like the Vietnam War and more like Eastern Europe [was]. Millions of people have to restore liberty and have to understand the danger and personal risk they face in a police state.
AVC: At a speaking engagement the other evening, you mentioned a story about how at the Republican National Convention, police were directed to arrest a group of Iraq War veterans who were protesting the war, but the police refused to carry out the order. Is it possible that it's too late to fight back against 200 years of democracy?
NW: Okay, well, may you be right and may I be wrong. But the Founders would have wanted us to err on the side of caution and not assume that's going to happen. Every one of us has a role to play. For you to do this interview is reasonably gutsy, considering there has been a total print blackout. [Laughs.] But whether it's speaking up as a journalist or laying down arms as a soldier—which is terribly risky; you're facing five years in prison—or whether it's standing up in Congress, or confronting your representatives to stand up in Congress, or refusing to arrest protesters, many acts of civil disobedience have to happen. I guess if I could say one thing, it's that each of us have to take those steps. We won't get out of this if we delegate those steps to someone else, or assume they'll happen. Germany was a parliamentary democracy with many, many humane and decent people who kept writing in their journals—I've read these journals, these memoirs—"Surely our leaders will stop this nonsense. Surely someone will take on these thugs. Surely the pendulum will swing back." Everyone was sitting at home going, "Well, they haven't come for me. This is crazy, but surely someone's going to take care of it." We all have to take care of it.
AVC: You've gone on record as a supporter of Barack Obama for president. Why? What can he do in the face of all of these things we've been discussing?
NW: Very good question. Why am I voting for Obama? Obama, of all the candidates, is the only one of the major candidates—even more than Hillary, when they were running against each other—to speak in favor of the defense of the Constitution and the separation of powers. Now, he has grievously betrayed those values with [his vote on] FISA, for instance. And I don't think he will solve these problems, if he's elected, without our participation. The reason I'm voting for him is that it's either him or a police state—someone who's carrying on policies that are clearly stated and directed at subverting liberty. He's definitely the lesser of two evils.
What he will do is stabilize the situation long enough for what really has to happen, which is a mass democracy movement by citizens to hold his feet to the fire and to strengthen his hand. Al Gore was a good guy and he wanted to give flextime to American women who are trying to balance work and family, but he couldn't because the business interests are organized, and they don't want it to happen. But moms don't organize. He did not have citizens forcing his hand so he could say to the business interests, "I can't give you what you want." We have abdicated. If he is elected, Obama is facing pressure from AT&T;, from the telecommunications industry, from the weapons industry—all of these people have trillions at stake in building a surveillance and security society. This is where their technology and their investments are now. They are not making Cold War weapons systems, they're invested in a hyped terror threat and subverting the Constitution because it's lucrative. He can't stand up to those interests—or even tell us that he can't stand up to them—without our mobilizing to force his hand and counter them. That's why I've called for a national referendum so that we can, in a heartbeat, say, "You know what? Fuck you. We want to end the Iraq War; 78 percent of us want to end the war, we're ending the war." We need a radical movement of citizens to strengthen his hand.
AVC: The most famous dictatorships in history were almost always made possible by the combination of the threat of war and an economic crisis. We now have both, yet it may give rise to the opposite—possibly the first African-American president who wants things like universal health care, to bring our troops home, and a fairer tax system.
NW: That's true. And I would like to trust and believe that the American spirit of resistance will win the day, but I keep having to be this downer Cassandra person in saying that without dismantling this horrific legislative apparatus that has basically given George Bush dictatorial power, the spirit of America is not enough. We have to have that spirit, but we have to have tactics and strategies and a movement and a victory. And not just at the voting booth. But I hope I've ended on a positive note, because I don't want people to be suicidal. I want them to be energized and angry.