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The Downing Street Memos: Building a New Movement

June 14, 2005
By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers

Not just because many of my relatives got wiped out in the Holocaust, or because my wife is Bavarian, but, like so many others around the world, I am ineluctably drawn to the Hitler period in Germany. How could this have happened - 6 million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and others herded into camps and slaughtered? More than 50 million killed on all sides in World War II? It's too much for the mind to comprehend.

And yet, I know that given the right set of circumstances, shameful episodes could, and in many instances did, happen in our own country (to African slaves, to Native Americans, to Japanese-Americans, et al). Fold in the current rise of anti-rational thought and militarist leadership in Bush America, symbolized best perhaps by the fact that torture is now officially sanctioned U.S. policy, and America would seem ripe for even worse excursions into the shadow world.

Probably the most instructive book I've read in recent years along these lines, about how easy it is for a nation to slide into totalitarianism, is Defying Hitler by the Christian German writer Sebastian Haffner; as a young man, Haffner lived through the 1930s in Germany and watched the Nazis slowly slice away at long-held freedoms until one day all citizens found themselves living in a brutal police-state.

Being someone deeply moved and influenced by the successful non-violent activism of Jesus, Gandhi, King, Chavez, Day and others, I always wondered what might have happened in Germany, and thus in modern global history, if a strong and widely based non-violent movement had existed there in the early-'30s. Suppose hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of ordinary German citizens had engaged in civil disobedience in the early days of Nazi rule, had put their bodies on the line to register and foment profound opposition to what Hitler was planning to do to his country and the world.

Non-violent civil disobedience worked for the American suffragettes in the early decades of the 20th Century, it worked for Mahatma Gandhi in the anti-colonial campaign in India in the '30s and '40s, it worked for Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement in America in the '50s and '60s, it worked for Cesar Chavez organizing a grape strike and boycott in California in the '60s and '70s, it worked for so many recent non-violent "peoples' revolutions" that forced corrupt or illegitimately-elected rulers around the world to resign - could it have worked in '30s Germany in turning that nation away from the imperialist, self-destructive course Hitler envisioned for it?

And could it work today in our own country, given the regime and problems we face as we slide more and more into a unique kind of American fascism under Bush & Co., where government works in concert with corporations and a non-rational, mostly religious, fundamentalism?

COULD HITLER HAVE BEEN STOPPED EARLY?

We will never know how successful a massive non-violent civil disobedience movement might have been in stopping Hitler in his tracks if it had confronted him early and often in the early '30s, led by prestigious church and civil leaders. But, as we know now, if political demagogues are not confronted wisely and in time to slow down or block their violent plans, social and military and ethical disaster is often the result.

Within a few years in Germany, for example, the Nazis were rounding up the few outspoken religious and political figures and throwing them into concentration camps. By the time the White Rose Society, led by those saintly young students Sophie and Hans Scholl, began circulating their anti-Nazi leaflets and posters, it was much too late. It took a world war that led to those 50 million+ deaths to settle the matter.

That's why German Pastor Martin Niemöller's famous quote is so poignant and instructive. (There are many versions; this one, I believe, presents the essence of what he said.)

"First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist - so I didn't speak up. Then they came for the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat - so I didn't speak up. Then they came for the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist - so I didn't speak up. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew - so I didn't speak up. Then when they came for me, there was no one left to speak up for me."

After 9/11, and the beginnings of police-state law-enforcement in America (including the secret arrests and hidden incarcerations of U.S. citizens), it was time to update the Niemoller quote to our own reality; here was my humble attempt.

"First, they came for the terrorist suspects, And I didn't speak up, because I wasn't a terrorist suspect. Then they came for the foreigners, And I didn't speak up, because I wasn't a foreigner. Then they came for the Arab-Americans, And I didn't speak up, because I wasn't Arab-American. Then they came for the radical dissenters, and I didn't speak up, because I was just an ordinary troubled citizen. Then they came for me, And by that time there was no one left to speak up for me."

LESSONS TO BE LEARNED FROM HISTORY

Please don't misunderstand. I am not saying that America in 2005 is Germany in 1933, or that Bush is Hitler. But unless one chooses to learn from history, one risks repeating or imitating it, or at least aspects of it, and that's the instructive lesson we have to take from the comparisons to European fascism.

Clearly, the situation in America is different. There is a functioning Opposition Party, for one thing, which picked up 50% of the votes in the two most recent presidential elections. And, although the Bush forces control two branches of government, the Executive and Legislative, their hold on the Judiciary is not complete - which is why the fighting gets so tenacious about their nominees for the Appellate and Supreme Courts.

What Bush & Co. have going for them, under the twisted strategies of Karl Rove, is a masterful use of the Big Lie Technique, and their firm hold on huge swatches of the American mass-media, especially talk-radio, cable commentary, small-city/rural newspapers, and the fundamentalist TV and word-of-mouth networks. In short, Bush & Co. spin and propaganda, often fear- and scapegoat-based, is effectively presented.

And they face a fairly disorganized and/or silenced opposition - in Congress, in mainline churches, in academia, mainstream pundits, etc. - which permits them constantly to set the agenda and batter their way through to victory on issue after issue, especially as their more civil opponents have still not figured out how to play defense against the Bush brand of smash-mouth politics. (The Democrats now are better in fighting back than they were during Bush's first term, but seem these days to rise and hit back only on highly specific issues.)

THE OPPORTUNITIES OF DRY ROT

Consider: President Richard Nixon looked impregnable after his landslide re-election victory in 1972. But years of mostly non-violent anti-war resistance, often in the streets, may have weakened the middle-class electoral foundations upon which his administration rested. Certainly, the strength of that resistance led to over-reaching on the part of a Nixon Administration infected by a paranoia so strong that it helped engender the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate. The fallout from that incident led inevitably to the discovery of the crimes known as the "White House Horrors" - the unconstitutional police-state felonies and the attempts to cover them up - and eventually to Nixon's resignation in the face of an imminent impeachment trial.

As in Nixon's case, the foundations upon which the Bush Administration rests are dry-rotted. All seems secure on the surface - after all, as has been noted, the Busheviks control both houses of Congress, much of the Judiciary, much of the mass-media - but, in truth, they are extremely insecure and vulnerable. A healthy majority of the citizenry believes they lied the country into a war that has led, and continues to lead, to tens of thousands of deaths and maimings. Many in the world fear America's power but few respect their leaders. Their actions have brought America into disrepute, into turning environmental law-writing over to the polluting industries, into humongous debt, into cutting and weakening popular social programs and required infrastructure maintenance, etc.

So one is led to wonder: is it too late for a mass-based non-violent opposition, one willing to put themselves in legal jeopardy with civil disobedience, that could lead to bringing down the morally-illegitimate Bush Administration? I think there is still a window of opportunity to do so. But several things would have to happen.

BUILDING A "MOVEMENT" COALITION

1. A united Democratic Party would have to stand tall and take the consequences for their courage in openly and forthrightly opposing each and every one of the Bush Administration's dangerous, reckless policies and behaviors. An active alternative party, perhaps the Greens in alliance with a new entity, would have to present itself as a possible and electable option for voters if the Democrats wimp out again.

2. The leading anti-war organizations - now segmented into separate, sectarian groups such as ANSWER, Not in My Name, United for Peace, et al. - would have to unite in building a massive umbrella coalition with but one goal in mind: regime-change at the top. The recently-born After Downing Street coalition demonstrates how quickly an effective coalition can be built from the ground up; it now has 125 organizations participating.

In the '60s and early-'70s, we had built ourselves a "Movement" - the term derived from the Civil Rights Movement of the previous decade - which could mobilize millions of peace-and-justice supporters into the streets. The so-called Moratorium alliances of groups fighting for justice and peace, especially to end the Vietnam War, frightened the Nixon and LBJ administrations into over-reacting.

Not all of the new "Movement" protests would have to be in the streets - the Internet has opened up so many other avenues for protest these days - but imagine, for example, the impact a "Million Americans for Impeachment" march would have in the nation's capital, with respected religious and political and academic leaders involved, with thousands of them willing to be arrested in non-violent, massive sit-ins - based in love and hope - in order to end this immoral war and change the way America is being misruled.

3. If this new "Movement" could be quickly built, it would need, and want, to reach out to the millions of disaffected independents and moderate Republicans who are appalled at the hijacking of the Republican Party by extremist elements. These independents and moderate Republicans are reachable, but sincere attempts have to be made to bring them into the fold. The bigger the tent, the bigger the influence. For example, they should be included, along with progressive leaders, at the head of any Million Person March or other major initiative.

EVIDENTIARY PROOFS FOUND IN THE DSM

It's not clear what all the unifying principles and themes could be that would energize this new Movement. Big issues might include the draft, and Social Security. But one would think that maybe the Iraq War would serve as the centerpoint, especially given the revelations of the Downing Street Memos, which verify what many of us have been asserting for years about how Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/et al lied and rushed the country into an unnecessary war for their own twisted, power-hungry ends.

Here's a quick chronology of deception highlights:

  • In January 1998, leaders of the neo-con Project for the New American Century - a Hard Right think-tank that included such key figures as Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, Jeb Bush, Jim Woolsey, et al. - wrote a letter to President Clinton urging that he invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein. (Clinton declined; he was going after bin Laden.) Later that year, when musing about a run for President in 2000 and how he would approach Iraq, Bush told his ghostwriter: "If I have a chance to invade, if I had that much capital, I'm not going to waste it."

  • The first Bush Administration cabinet meetings in January 2001, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill reported, focused on finding ways to attack Iraq. Later that year, Bush directed Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to begin considering military options for Saddam's removal. Even after being told by his intelligence analysts that 9/11 was the work of Al Qaida and not Iraq, Rumsfeld began badgering his intelligence crew to try to include Saddam Hussein in retaliation plans. Bush himself cornered anti-terrorism chief Richard Clarke and strongly suggested that he find a way to include Saddam in the mix.

  • In March of 2002, Time Magazine reported that Bush told several senators visiting the White House: "Fuck Saddam, we're taking him out."

  • In July of 2002, without going to Congress for permission, Bush took $700 million from funds Congress authorized for the Afghanistan war against Al Qaida/Taliban forces and diverted them to the coming Iraq War. Meanwhile, of course, Bush was telling the American people that he hadn't made up his mind about attacking Iraq.

  • The recently-revealed, top-secret Downing Street Memo, dated July 23, 2002, which talks about a just-concluded meeting between U.K. and Administration leaders at the Bush ranch in Texas, said that the "intelligence and facts" to justify the Iraq invasion to the public were to be "fixed around the policy." "Terrorism and WMD" would be the basis, the memo reported. Later, Paul Wolfowitz admitted that the Administration was having trouble agreeing on a rationale that would be seen morally acceptable and thus gain wide public support, so they finally settled on WMD - which they were sure would work. And it did, despite the fact that there were no stockpiles of those banned weapons.

  • In the second top-secret Downing Street Memo, released by the Times of London just a few days ago, the briefing paper for that Blair-Bush meeting of July 23, 2002, reveals that the British were worried about the illegality of the war action and that both the U.S. and Britain were anxious to find some legal excuse for their pending attack. They conceived of ways to lure Saddam Hussein into doing something belligerent that would make an attack more acceptable in the U.S. and U.N.; bombing runs by U.S. jets went on for months before the invasion, to try to provoke just such a response. But Saddam, aware of what game was being played, didn't react to the bait. Blair and Bush tried another ruse at the United Nations: they believed Saddam would object to allowing U.N. weapons inspectors back in, and thus create a casus belli, but, surprise, the Iraqi leader said the inspectors could return. Their preliminary work indicated that there were no stockpiles of WMD.

  • The U.N. inspections were cut off abruptly. The "shock and awe" bombing and land invasion began in March of 2003, nearly one year to the date from when Bush told the senators that Saddam was a goner, "we're taking him out."

BUILDING OUR POLITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE

So the Iraq War scandals and coverups might well provide the organizing principles for the new "Movement." But whatever the central issues turn out to be, the point is that nothing will happen unless we radically alter the way we confront the Bush Administration. They have sown fear into the body politic, including the Left and moderate middle; they have encouraged division and factional in-fighting among progressives; they have marginalized and smeared mass-media organs and spokesmen in opposition. Something has to change.

We can't count on the elections of 2006 and 2008 to bring the major changes that are required - not just because of the time-gap between now and then, but mainly because the same three GOP-supporting corporations continue to own the proprietary software that counts the votes. (Which is why a key part of our struggle must be to return to paper ballots, hand-counted.)

After the 1964 defeat of the GOP's right-wing presidential candidate, Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Hard Right began its long campaign to assume power, knowing that it would take them decades to build the required political/media/think-tank infrastructure that would lead to victory, as it did in 1980 with Reagan's election and later with Newt Gingrich leading in Congress and then Bush #2 in the White House.

We don't have the luxury of decades. We who want to return our country to its moral Constitutional foundations must jump-start the process of building and enlarging our political infrastructure right now. If we don't, the forces of repression, militarism and incipient fascism will suck us all further into their shadow vortex.

The time to move, to "Movement," is now.


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